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Monday, September 13, 2021

The Rep's Dreaming Zenzile Tells the Story of South African Activist Miriam Makeba

Posted By on Mon, Sep 13, 2021 at 6:57 AM

click to enlarge Star and writer of "Dreaming Zenzile" Somi Kakoma in rehearsal. - COURTESY THE REPERTORY THEATRE / LILIANA BLAIN-CRUZ
  • Courtesy The Repertory Theatre / Liliana Blain-Cruz
  • Star and writer of "Dreaming Zenzile" Somi Kakoma in rehearsal.

Dreams have always been at the center of Somi Kakoma’s life. Raised in Champaign, Illinois, by South African immigrants, her family often encouraged her to dream and never discouraged her from becoming an artist.

More famously known as simply "Somi," the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has crafted a musical based on her dreams. Kakoma’s first-ever musical Dreaming Zenzile will premiere at The Repertory Theatre (130 Edgar Rd, Webster Groves, MO 63119), showcasing just how far Kakoma’s dreams have taken her.



Originally scheduled for an April 2020 premiere date, the jazz musical was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Dreaming Zenzile will premiere on September 17.

The musical is set on the last night of Zenzile Miriam Makeba’s — better known as Miriam Makeba — life. Makeba was a South African singer and anti-apartheid activist. She was also involved in the civil rights movement. On the night the musical takes place, Makeba was performing in Italy. When she finished her performance, she walked into the wings of the theatre, had a heart attack and died.

"I love the idea that she finished the show," Kakoma tells the RFT. "I thought it was such a beautiful death, as tragic as that is to lose someone that major to African culture and music and jazz. It's still such a beautiful way to go, but it’s still a decision to finish the show and then walk off."

The musical goes through a journey with Kakoma starring as Makeba and four other actors as chorus members who double as spirits and ancestors. The chorus members have the duty of telling Makeba it is her time to go while she decides if it really is her time.

In Xhosa, Makeba's native language, zenzile means "You have brought this on yourself." Kakoma said this idea of “you have done it to yourself” brought on the conversations that Makeba and the spirits have in the musical.

"She’s deciding when she’s going to do it to herself because she always had agency," Kakoma says. "So, they’re talking to her about her life journey and why it’s time. It takes the audience through a journey of what her life has been and what her contributions have been."

The idea of the musical originally spurred from dreams Kakoma had after her father had died in 2009. When she began having dreams of her father and Makeba having conversations, she found comfort. In many ways, she said the dreams of Makeba helped her move through the grief. Kakoma said she felt in the dreams that Makeba helped her talk to her father “and feel at peace with my choice to be an artist."

Five years later, Kakoma had not written or talked about the dreams she was having. In a conversation, her friend brought up that no one had told the South African activist's story yet. A light bulb went up for the singer. Kakoma knew creating this musical was meant for her.

"Sometimes these things show up in our hearts and it’s not that, 'Oh this is something I want to do,' it's something you might feel called to do," Kakoma said.

After that, Kakoma got to work. She applied for grants and researched Makeba's life. Kakoma said she initially thought the piece was going to be about the conversations she had in her dreams with Makeba and her father, but realized a lot of Makeba’s story had not been told.

The musical brought Kakoma home to the Midwest. Kakoma had previously known Hana Sharif, the artistic director for the Rep, after meeting her in Baltimore.

"When we reconnected, I was grateful that she said, 'Maybe this is why we were connected to begin with,'' Kakoma says. "It's always such a meaningful thing for a person to take a risk."

Sharif detailed in a press release that it’s “an incredible gift to open our season with Somi’s incomparable portrayal of the beauty and complexity of Miriam Makeba’s journey.” She’s excited for St. Louisans to be the first to experience the production after eighteen months of waiting. After the musical wraps up in St. Louis, it’ll head to theaters in New York City and New Jersey.

"I’ve been carefully watching the development of this piece since its earliest stages and am thrilled to produce it as a world premiere musical in St. Louis," Sharif said in a statement in 2020. "This is a true passion project for Somi, whose radiant talent will make this production unforgettable."

Kakoma emphasized the importance of being near home for her debut musical, saying there was something really special about being able to share the musical in the Midwest. She joked that she expected her mom to arrive at the shows with a whole caravan.

The idea, Kakoma said, is that the musical asks people to dream for 90 minutes.

What started out as a musical about recurring dreams morphed into the piece that it is — an homage, a remembrance and a history lesson. After years of Makeba being erased from American history due to her marriage to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, Kakoma hopes this prompts her audience to remember or research Makeba.

"For me, what’s more important is that her story be told," Kakoma says. "Because at the end of the day, no one is Miriam Makeba."

Tickets range from $29 to $99. The musical runs until October 3. Anyone interested in attending can grab tickets at repstl.org.

Follow Jenna on Twitter at @writesjenna. Email the author at jenna@riverfronttimes.com
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