Djembe! The Show works much better as theater for kids than inspiration for adults | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Djembe! The Show works much better as theater for kids than inspiration for adults

The drumming is fun, but the corporate-speak is not.


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Everything about Djembe! The Show starts to make more sense when you imagine it out of its current context—the theater—and back in its spiritual place of origin, a corporate seminar. Created by Doug Manuel, a white British inspirational speaker and social entrepreneur who sells motivational speeches and leadership retreats, this 90-minute commercial interactive musical experience invites audiences to learn djembe drum fundamentals by playing along to affordably licensed hits.

As a concert and work of children's theater, components of it are pretty damn cool. Preshow, a projection requesting audiences to "please wait to play your djembe until the show begins" went largely (and understandably) ignored by the excited families in the house on Easter weekend after each audience member was greeted with a weighty, tantalizing drum on his or her seat. There's an undeniable energy to the show from minute one, a promise that West African djembe master Fodé Moussa "Lavia" Camara makes good on once he really gets going.

But it's inconceivable that Manuel and director West Hyler's educational script, which is coated in a thick layer of guru webinar-talk, is intended for anyone but the youngest of audiences. Vocalist Rashada Dawan and emcee Ben Hope deserve so much better than having to give flimsy speeches about how, when you really think about it, playing the djembe and texting on a cell phone really aren't that different. And my heart plummets imagining auditoriums full of grown corporate adults learning about the rhythms of West African music via "99 Luftballons" and "Gangnam Style."   v

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