Spoken-word vignettes segway into acapella song in the production of “Thokoza, I Sing for Freedom” that reopened its weekly run, now, every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. at the Jackie Onassis Theatre on 120 W. 46th St.
Perched on six black wooden boxes in an appropriately minimal set, six women who could be your sisters, your mother, or your grandmother, in easy banter, swap lore of family and life. The women of “Thokoza, I Sing for Freedom” are originally from South Africa and also from Harlem or the South and are of “a certain age” with a lot of life experience to share.
The tales of these modern day griots are followed by song, sometimes solo, sometimes the group. A beat against box, a tambourine, or an egg shaker rhythmically accompanies a select few songs.
About half the songs are familiar, mining the American Black musical experience from gospel, to the 60s civil rights song-“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”, to R&B/ Soul – “Respect,” to jazz-“Afro Blue” and Nina Simone’s “Peaches.” The production includes a tribute in English to Nelson Mandela. At times, the audience joins by clapping, often murmuring the words to the songs they know.
Other songs in “I Sing for Freedom” draw from the rich harmonies of the South African musical repertoire. It took tutelage for the American singers to pick up the proper accents for the four different South African tongues sung.
The experience in attending this production is one of being embraced by the music amidst the familiarity of the performers. For the performers, it is music they love that makes them feel free.
The 90-minute production ran weekly for seven months last year at Baruch Performing Arts Center and its brief hiatus between runs has provided time for creative changes. “More South African music has been added and there are a few less stories,” says producer Eric Krebs commenting on the newer version.
The singers have winterfied their garb for this production. Now, all are dressed in black with each woman wearing a bright different colored scarf, together the colors of the South African flag. These colors symbolize–they say during the production– the color of South Africa’s people, the land, natural wealth, bloodshed, hope and trust.
Director of the production, Thuli Dumakude was born in Durban, South Africa and has lived in the U.S. since 1979, working here as a singer and stage actress — including Broadway’s The Lion King. She conceived of “Thokoza,” which means ‘celebration’ in Zulu. The production is a concert experience mixed with the stories of the griots’ life experiences.