Steppenwolf Theatre

The same night Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Song of Jacob Zulu opened last week, an Irish Republican Army bomb went off in London’s financial district, killing 2 people and wounding almost 100. Apparently set off to protest the Tory victory in England’s recent election, the bomb’s purpose was simply to kill and hurt people–not just government officials or soldiers but “civilians,” as the militants call them–perceived as being at least passively responsible for supporting an oppressive government. Terrorist acts like this are acts of despair; they dispense with the notion that bombing civilian targets is to be avoided because it undermines public sympathy for a liberation movement and presume instead that violence is an end unto itself.

Written by a white Jewish South African emigre named Tug Yourgrau and featuring music by the black South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Song of Jacob Zulu is set in South Africa in 1985 and deals directly with that country’s politics. In fact, it’s based on a true incident: its hero, Jacob Zulu, is modeled on a young man named Andrew Zondo–a cousin of Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s leader and the score’s composer–who set off a Christmastime bomb in a shopping center that killed and wounded mostly civilians, both white and black.

But the story it tells is universal. Jacob Zulu, the 19-year-old black who lashes out against an unjust system with senseless and self-defeating violence, is affiliated with the African National Congress, but he could have been a member of the IRA or one of the Jews who revolted against the Romans in the first century AD. This intelligent, gentle youth, with an intellectual bent and deep Christian roots, could just as easily have been one of the Black Panthers gunned down in the 1969 police raid on Fred Hampton’s apartment, or one of the millions of people throughout history whose best instincts and basic goodwill were twisted by political and personal brutality so that they became enemies, and then victims, of the state. Jacob Zulu could as easily be named Billy Budd–Yourgrau’s drama, like the stage version of Herman Melville’s Christian allegory, ends with its hero ascending a gallows–and the insidious and perverted inhumanity of South African apartheid could well bear the name Claggart, or Satan.

Jacob, the son of a black Christian preacher and an ANC recruit, is arrested for placing a bomb at a shopping center; in his confession, beaten out of him by police, he claims to have acted alone and to have attempted to phone a warning so that civilians would not be harmed. His white lawyer, a British-South African liberal, wants to use Jacob’s case to dramatize the plight of blacks; but Jacob’s unresponsiveness under sympathetic questioning, and his refusal to press charges of police brutality, make him an unsuitable symbol. So does the appearance of a witness who claims to have been Jacob’s accomplice–and to have heard Jacob regret only that more whites weren’t killed. Is the enigmatic Jacob’s shy passivity a sign of mental illness, a ruse, or the resignation of total despair?

Though like a psychological drama this play peels back the layers of Jacob’s mind through courtroom interrogation and flashbacks, The Song of Jacob Zulu also lives up to its name by smoothly integrating sung and spoken text. While it directly addresses such events as the banning of the African National Congress, the wanton violence unleashed on schoolchildren who happened to be attending classes during an antiapartheid demonstration, and South African bombing raids on neighboring nations where ANC training camps are based, at its core it’s a study of human spirituality–how the soul’s capacity for love can be twisted into unholy hate. Fittingly the production comes across not so much a show as a ceremony. Like The Gospel at Colonus and Sarafina!, The Song of Jacob Zulu incorporates music, dance, and dramatic tableaux into something akin to religious ritual, a passion play whose narrative simplicity enhances the sense of inevitability necessary to a tragedy of both grand and intimate dimensions.

Employing a haunting, ethereal chanting enhanced by stylized movement that reflects the traditions of tribal dance, the Ladysmith Black Mambazo ensemble functions as a Greek chorus, moving the drama forward, commenting on its twists and turns, and establishing an almost supernatural mood of compassion. Yet even as the nine South African singers assert their otherworldly presence, they interact smoothly with the cast of American, British, and South African actors, among them Steppenwolf members John Mahoney and Robert Breuler and longtime Athol Fugard associate Zakes Mokae. The consistency of the large and diverse cast is one of the remarkable achievements of Eric Simonson’s direction; another is the visual gracefulness of the production, which fills the sprawling Steppenwolf stage without overpowering the script. Kevin Rigdon’s set, by far the simplest and most effective I’ve seen in Steppenwolf’s new space, works with Robert Christen’s delicate lighting to preserve the story’s intimacy while accommodating its large-scale implications.

At the center of this visually and musically memorable production is K. Todd Freeman as Jacob, giving a performance so natural and immediate that it’s surprising to read his program biography, which refers to his work on TV shows and in comedy cabarets. Charting every choked emotion in his confused and inarticulate character’s development, Freeman is Jacob Zulu; and by so powerfully conveying the individuality of Jacob’s tragedy he paradoxically confirms The Song of Jacob Zulu as a ballad for all souls lost to hate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.