at the New Regal Theater
Sarafina! the South African musical that opened at Lincoln Center in the fall of 1987 and then played for more than two years on Broadway, is every bit as energetic, exuberant, life-affirming, and at times soul-stirring as you'd expect from a show with an exclamation point in the title. What this self-described "musical celebration of South African resistance to . . . apartheid" fails to provide, despite the wonderful music and awe-inspiring dance, is a compelling or even particularly coherent story about the 1976 Soweto uprising, around which it is supposedly structured.
You would be hard-pressed to glean from Sarafina! even a few meager historical facts--for example, that the vast majority of the demonstrators were schoolchildren protesting the government's attempt to use Afrikaans as the exclusive means of instructing black children, an attempt seen by many as a way of limiting the employment opportunities of South Africa's blacks to low-paying servant work. Nor would you know that over 360 people, mostly teenagers, were killed in the clashes between street demonstrators and overzealous police during that bloody summer. You wouldn't even find out that the famed South African student leader, Steve Biko, helped organize the demonstrations and later died under mysterious circumstances while in detention during the uprising.
There is a song in the first act, "Yes, Mistress It's a Pity," that evokes, if only for a few minutes, the horror and indiscriminate bloodshed of that summer. In the song, a policeman patrolling a school in search of agitators interrupts a class studying "the oil-producing nations" and, in a moment of hysteria, becomes convinced that they are all "fucking communists," and mows them all down with his machine gun. In a few horrifying seconds we watch all of the characters we have come to know in the first half of the act, including Sarafina, twitch and fall in time to the pulsing sprays of lead. The scene is at once horrible and fascinating, incredibly beautiful and incredibly macabre.
How seriously are we to take this scene, however, when a few minutes later the very students we thought had been killed reappear onstage? And this isn't the only apparent lapse in story telling.
Mbongeni Ngema, who wrote the book and most of the songs for Sarafina! clearly spent far more time polishing his songs than developing the narrative. In fact, the story line in Sarafina! is so weak that if Ngema's bio in the program hadn't mentioned that he has had a number of his plays produced over the years (including the much-acclaimed Woza Albert!), I would have thought Sarafina! was his first attempt to connect his music with a rough story.
To be sure, Ngema's instincts as a writer are good. He has the wisdom to focus on one particular group of students at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, allowing their experiences to stand in for those of all students during the uprising. However, Ngema does not spend enough time turning his intriguingly named characters--Colgate, Teaspoon, Crocodile, Silence--into memorable three-dimensional beings. Indeed, only the musical's charismatic title character, the always politically correct Sarafina, ever manages to stand out from the corps of similarly clad students (in black bowlers and black shirts over black pants or skirts). And of course without a cast of individual characters, it's hard to build up any sort of drama, a failing that comes back to haunt the musical partway through the second act when the story sputters and dies. Ngema is forced to rely on a school concert for the presence of the last seven or so songs in the show.
Even plucky Sarafina, who has enough personality for two characters, is less of an individual than an idealized type: the perfect student leader. Intelligent, energetic, committed, Sarafina manages to turn everything into an excuse to talk about Nelson Mandela and the future liberation of all blacks in South Africa. When Sarafina is detained by the security police, we don't worry for a minute that she might be beaten to death, as Steve Biko was. We know that eventually, in a scene or two, she'll return to the school stronger than ever and eager to continue fighting for the cause.
Similarly, the school scenes before the uprising--the horsing around before and during class, the exercises that show so painfully well who has and has not prepared his lessons--are such stock classroom scenes that they do little to inform us what makes school in Soweto different from, say, Tom Brown's school days or Theodore Cleaver's.
On reflection, it's hard to tell why Ngema even bothered with a narrative. Clearly his music (and that of his collaborator, Hugh Masekela), written in the mbaquanga tradition, which combines gospel, jazz, rock, and R & B idioms in a powerful hybrid many will recognize from Paul Simon's Graceland, is what made this show a hit. Why has Ngema chosen to encumber what is essentially a concert inspired by the Soweto uprising with a threadbare narrative?
Sarafina! would not be one jot worse if Ngema had blue-penciled everyone except Sarafina, who could be retained to introduce each song. Sarafina! might even be a better show for it. At least there would be less pressure in a stripped-down Sarafina! to come up with something of historical importance to say about the Soweto uprisings. And that would leave Ngema and Masekela free to do what they do best--sketch out in musical form the hopes, dreams, and traumatic memories of the people who lived through the bloody summer of 1976.