Perhaps the best way to approach a play like Lindiwe, a Love Story is not to ask it to be a play at all—at least, not in the conventional sense. After all, the script was largely written to reunite legendary music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo with the equally famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago; a relationship that began 27 years ago with The Song of Jacob Zulu (which went on to earn six Tony nominations after moving to Broadway), and continued with the 1996 production of Nomathemba, which transferred to the Kennedy Center.
In fact, the director of those two productions, Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson garnered an Oscar nomination for On Tiptoe: The Music of Ladysmith Mambazo, his 2000 documentary on the South African ensemble. It’s therefore not at all surprising that he’d be eager to bring the nine-member group back to their theatrical second home, writing Lindiwe as the vehicle and co-directing with Steppenwolf Artistic Producer Jonathan Berry.
“It was really exciting to put two different longstanding ensembles together,” recalls Berry of the longstanding alliance. “[T]hrough working together for a really long time, [they] found a really fantastic collective language onstage that ends up being both exciting and new and also something that’s very natural and true.”
Most of us already know Lindiwe’s story—it’s based upon the well-traversed Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, memorably referenced in other musically-fueled tales like Black Orpheus, the multi-Tony award-winning Broadway musical Hadestown and even Donald Glover’s film Guava Island. All are love stories that involve sacrifice, separation and a requisite death; what differentiates them are the musical nuances that propel each version of the story along to its inevitably bittersweet end. But as Berry shares, the inspiration behind this “otherworldly love story” was close to home as the Steppenwolf mourned a series of losses within its own ranks—including the deaths of actors John Mahoney, Mariann Mayberry, and Glenn Headley, as well as beloved stage manager Malcolm Ewen and longtime Artistic Director Martha Lavey. In fact, it was Lavey who first suggested bringing Mambazo back to the theater.
“It felt sort of remarkable in this accumulation of grief and loss,” says Barry, explaining that Simonson wrote Lindiwe in an attempt to speak to those feelings. “Listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and being in the room with them...their music has such a deep resonance of the past and looking back, but something that really touches joy—a sort of lifting of the spirit. It ended up being the perfect vehicle to talk about how we move through grief.”
Simonson’s resulting story—of the unlikely but indomitable romance between a black South African singer touring with Mambazo (the Lindiwe of the play’s title; Mambazo plays themselves) and a white Chicago blues drummer—is almost overwhelmingly earnest. Issues of culture, geographical distance, ambition, immigration and, of course, the forces of life and death all dance, duel and debate in the course of the two-hour production (occasionally in absurd ways, thanks to its outlandish villain). But while earnestness is a quality that generally makes this writer cringe, it’s somehow forgivable here. So genuine and hopeful are the spirit of Lindiwe and its songs—qualities in too short a supply in our current climate, and therefore more than welcome during the holiday season.
Where does Mambazo come in? They are, by turns, Lindiwe’s
Greek South African chorus, spiritual godfathers, comic relief and the thread that holds it all together. Amidst all the action on stage, it’s the music and almost meditative quality of the isicathamiya-style harmonies the group made famous that keep audiences spellbound.
“Coming back to work with Steppenwolf and with Eric, it’s wonderful,” says Albert Mazibuko, a 50-year member of the group founded by relative Joseph Shabalala in 1960. Almost 60 years later, several of Shabalala’s sons continue the legacy, as the group has suffered its own losses in recent years. Mazibuko, who has performed in all of the Steppenwolf collaborations to date, tells us, “It feels like we are coming back home.
“I look at this show as we are doing it now, [and] it shows me how powerful love is,” he continues. “I’m so excited to be a part of it because Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music is about uniting people; it’s about love...this story really represents our mission with our music.”
Then, there’s Lindiwe’s eponymous heroine, played by Nondumiso Tembe. While the Durban-born actress, singer, and dancer was considered a perfect fit for the role of the young South African with a voice powerful enough to sing with the likes of Mambazo, watching her on stage, it’s difficult to believe Lindiwe wasn’t expressly for her.
“I think it’s very rare and special when you encounter a character and a story that parallels your own so many ways, and so the fit was kind of unbelievably natural and organic,” she shares. “There are just so many ways in which Lindiwe and her story and life’s journey very much mirror my own—even though we are different...there’s so much of just myself who I am that I could bring to this role, and there’s a certain kind of joy and freedom in that.”
For instance, as the daughter of the first black South African opera singers and part of the country’s artistic community, Tembe has known Ladysmith Black Mambazo all her life. “They watched me grow up; they’ve seen my work and my career grow since I was a little girl,” she says. “So, it’s kind of a dream come true to finally really get to work with them.”
Of Lindiwe’s musical exploration of love and loss, Tembe says: “I think that loss and grief are universally fundamentally human challenges—no matter who you are, where you come from, what your background—this is something that will touch and affect your life, your heart, your soul in some way.”
“Ultimately, one hopes it’s a cathartic experience at the end...and then, of course, I think everyone loves a love story,” she adds, pointing out that Lindiwe’s uniqueness also lies in its rare exploration of love between artists, a dynamic that adds another layer of tension to the familiar tale.
Tembe is also acutely attuned to the significance of her presence as the focus of Lindiwe’s plot, telling us, “I think just the power and importance of having a big, glamorous, wonderful, beautiful, rich story with a young, complicated black woman at the center of it is something that’s important, so that part of it, I’m proud of and grateful for and excited by.
“This story could have gone in many different directions, but they specifically chose to put a young black African woman at the center of it and have her journey, her conflict, her dilemma explored in a really deep and rich and multidimensional way,” she adds. “I think that’s a triumph for the [Steppenwolf] but also really a good step in the right direction for all of us in our industry and the importance of representation and just creating those opportunities for all different kinds of artists.”
Of course, the elephant in the theater is that while the cast of Lindiwe is predominantly black—black and African, no less—its author and director are white Americans. When asked if that dynamic proved at all challenging, Tembe is diplomatic: “We all worked really, really hard to make sure that there was authenticity in the way that the story was told and the characters manifested, so that was a collaborative effort...I was lucky to be working with people who did respect my perspective and were incredibly open to my input,” she shares, admitting that short of crafting our own narratives, the ability to speak truth to one’s own experience is “actually everything.”
“I think that a theater like Steppenwolf choosing deliberately to stage a play like Lindiwe is absolutely an example that we are seeing across our industry,” she adds, crediting the success of television shows like Scandal for convincing gatekeepers that a black woman can carry a major vehicle. “I’ve felt a wave of change, and a whole new world of characters opened up to me as a black actress...now there is more space and interest in looking for content that represents more people.”
But as Tembe, herself a content creator, speaks more broadly about the industry in which she’s based her career, she’s more emphatic. “I think that ultimately it’s on us to be brave, really—to be brave in speaking our truth,” she says. “Most likely, as you climb up the ladder of success, more and more, you become either the only person of color or the only woman in the room—and when you’re younger, I think you’re waiting or expecting for the grown-ups or the successful people to stand up for what it is right or fight for certain things. And then you realize that actually it’s you—you’re the one that you’ve been waiting for. And that can be incredibly difficult, and uncomfortable, and scary, but incredibly empowering, because it is on me, actually.
“No one’s going to know and understand your experience better than you, and so it is your responsibility, then, to speak up and just have courage, even if you’re the only voice and you’re speaking up alone,” she continues. “Because you have to live with yourself at the end of the day—and you’re also accountable to your community. If the thing doesn’t turn out right, you’re the one that your own people are going to turn around and say, ‘Well, what were you doing? You were there; you were in that room—how did you let this happen?’”
As Tembe’s star continues to rise with back-to-back leading roles (now based in Los Angeles, she played Cleopatra just prior to Lindiwe) she says accountability has become as important a responsibility as properly choosing and inhabiting a role.
“It is not comfortable or easy, but it is necessary. And that’s when you just have to toughen up strong and fight for what’s right, you know? Because at the end of the day, you have to be proud of the work that you’re doing.”
There’s plenty of pride in Lindiwe—and plenty of fight, too. But ultimately, as the audience is swept up in yet another telling of this epic tale, it’s love that is the message.
“If we can nurture love, everything will be easier,” says Albert Mazibuko. “I want each and every person who comes to see the show—when they are going back home, to reevaluate their love, and to realize how important love is.”
Lindiwe is in production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through January 5 and is suitable for the entire family. You can get tickets here.