Steppenwolf’s long association with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the legendary South African male a cappella choral group, stretches back nearly 30 years, since Tug Yourgrau’s apartheid-era drama The Song of Jacob Zulu went from the company’s stage to Broadway under Eric Simonson’s direction. Simonson subsequently collaborated with the company on Nomathemba, and now he’s written and codirected (with Jonathan Berry) Lindiwe. The title character, played by the effervescent and vocally magnetic Nondumiso Tembe, falls for Adam (Erik Hellman), a young blues drummer in Chicago, while touring with Mambazo and finds herself in a few different kinds of hell—from an ICE detainment center to an afterworld run by Yasen Peyankov’s “Keeper,” who wants to keep her from singing and is willing to use her love for Adam as a bargaining chip to make that happen.
Narratively, it’s a messy affair, and one that doesn’t really get to the heart of either the blues or Mambazo’s traditions, or even why the music means so much to these lovers. The nine members of the group perform as choral figures for the story, which mashes up the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice with everything from A Star Is Born (Adam, who’s come to South Africa to be with Lindiwe, resents her rising profile) to The Good Place. (Peyankov’s goth-glam Keeper maintains, a la Marc Evan Jackson’s head demon Shawn in the latter, that humans don’t really evolve.)
The music is glorious, especially when Tembe is singing. But what could be a heartfelt meditation on the connections that love, music, and love of music build between people and across time bogs down with too much self-conscious story and not enough song. v