Who is “Lindiwe” for?
That’s what I kept thinking as I left Steppenwolf after this world premiere, the latest collaboration between playwright and co-director Eric Simonson (joined here by co-director Jonathan Berry) and internationally renowned music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The show as a musical experience is too fleeting, and as a narrative experience too confounding. But more worrisome: “Lindiwe” showcases black and African culture stripped of any specificity in order to present something palatable (safe, if you will) for a majority-white Steppenwolf audience.
The show—set in a dilapidated theater for reasons that make no immediate dramaturgical sense—tracks the life of a black South African singer, the Lindiwe of the title (exquisitely brought to life by Nondumiso Tembe) who falls in love with the white Chicago-based drummer, Adam (the likable Erik Hellman playing an unlikable character). In a story that highlights the music of Chicago and South Africa, it’s frustrating to see the concept of Chicago blues represented by a young white dude from Lincoln Park, whether that was the intention or otherwise.
But we can’t dwell on that because we need to tackle the show’s villain, the surefire oddest production choice in a show filled with them. The Keeper (Yasen Peyankov), a demon-like antagonist who controls the fates of our star-crossed lovers, is a holdover from the Disney Renaissance of the nineties, reveling in camp-adjacent imagery and line delivery. He too seems to be divorced from culturally specific iconography, making his presence brain-shatteringly confusing. Anytime The Keeper appears, you may feel like Milhouse from “The Simpsons,” begging the production “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” or, alternately, “When are they gonna get to the next Mombazo song?”
Because, unsurprisingly, when “Lindiwe” launches into anything musical, the production comes to life. Mambazo’s a cappella music throughout the evening warms your soul in the most satisfying of ways, and Tembe’s voice would truly wake up the gods. Their joint rendition of “Caldonia” is a highlight. When they create music that is steeped in Chicago blues as well as South African folk music, you’re transported far away from the narrative conundrum conjured onstage.
There’s no denying that this is a room of confident and talented artists who are, unfortunately, working in service of something that has no cohesion, no throughline and, most painfully of all, no clear purpose. The most interesting thing about “Lindiwe” is the way it accidentally acts as a conversation piece with another show currently in our city: Jackalope Theatre Company’s “P.Y.G: or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle,” a hilarious and insightful play that questions what it means for black artists to placate white people. But “Lindiwe” doesn’t have to question it. It just up and does it. (Ben Kaye)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$114. Through January 5.