Approached to work on a revival of David Spangler’s 1977 musical “Nefertiti, ” Bessie-nominated choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff proposed taking it home instead—to his company, Deeply Rooted Productions—and producing it for their regular season. The result, “Nefertiti: A Concert of Music and Dance”(co-choreographed by Gary Abbott), opens October 5 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
The drama is equal parts love story and political narrative: as much about the relationship between Nefertiti and the pharaoh Akhenaten (founder of the first monotheistic cult) as the political uses and abuses of religion. “Religion was being used as a tool of fear and repression and, in this context, Akhenaten’s innovation was revolutionary,” Jeff explains.
Deeply Rooted’s program is a revival in more ways then one. They’ve added a gospel choir and brought in the people—or at least their dramatic representatives. Intended to emphasize the communal perspective (an element Jeff views as missing from the original), the new choreography and musical arrangements are infused with distinctly African resonances. And the effect is aesthetically re-connecting the narrative to its historical roots.
Actors (the leads are played by Ebony Blake and Marion Willis III) narrate the tale, but it’s the dance segments that most dramatize the plot’s traversal from oppression to redemption. In the first half, “Angry Gods”—a jostling ensemble piece featuring six principle dancers—depicts the plight of the people of Thebes living under the oppressive rule of the priests. In stark contrast is the second act’s celebratory “Under the Sun.” At once exuberant and sensuous (it blends balletic with African and East-Indian dance elements), this second piece evokes the creative and spiritual liberation of the people under the reformer Akhenaten.
Known for their inspired (African-American-based) dance theater, this inter-disciplinary production is a departure for Deeply Rooted, but one that Jeff sees as a natural fit: “The production explores spirituality as the vital and creative root of a culture and that’s something that really resonates with this company.” It’s an old enough story: sometimes you have to leave the familiar to get closer to your roots. (Debbie Goldgarber)
“Nefertiti” at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, (312)902-1500. This production is now closed.