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A New Face on Shakespeare

Whether cracking racism or telling a story, Welcome Msomi has succeeded using daring approaches. Just look at his reworking of 'Macbeth.'

September 28, 1997|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In 1964, when Welcome Msomi was about 20 years old and an aspiring actor, he tried to enroll in the speech and drama department of the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. As a black man of Zulu ancestry, he was told to apply to the Minister of Interior for what was then exceptional permission to enter a white university in a country ruled by the apartheid policies of a white Afrikaans minority government.

"I remembered thinking, 'Forget it, I'll form my own acting company,' " Msomi recalled recently. "It was the best thing I ever did. When doors are closed to you, you are forced to invent ways to be self-reliant."

Indeed, by extension, the world might well have been deprived of Msomi's greatest achievement in the theater: "Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth," which transposes Shakespeare's immortal story of greed and ambition onto episodes drawn from 19th century African history, specifically the intrigue and murderous plots surrounding the rise to power and tragic fall of King Shaka, one of the Zulu tribe's greatest warrior heroes.

First performed in 1970 in a South African production that eventually toured the world--including acclaimed runs in London, New York and Spoleto, Italy, but not Los Angeles--"Umabatha" is now touring the United States in an expanded and exuberant revival featuring 46 South African singers, dancers and actors. The Johannesburg Civic Theater production will be performed Thursday through Saturday at the Wiltern Theatre, in Zulu with supertitles providing a simultaneous translation. The show moves to the Irvine Barclay Theatre for one performance Oct. 6.

Msomi says a professor at Natal University was the one who, in 1969, gave him the idea of using classic myths and stories of world drama as an avenue through which he might retell Zulu history. "I hated the suggestion at first," said the affable Msomi, now a successful 53-year-old entertainment entrepreneur as well as an established producer-playwright-director, in the course of a breakfast interview at a Manhattan hotel during the show's run as part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival.

After all, by that time, his Black Theatre Company, later known as the Zulu Dance Theatre and Music Company, was successfully presenting contemporary dramas about Natal township life in the Zulu language. And, amid the rising black nationalist fervor inspired by such political heroes as Steven Biko, the ambitious actor-director was somewhat on guard against anything that smacked too much of white Western culture.

But on closer inspection, the warring Scottish clans of "Macbeth" had eerie and striking parallels to the dissident clans which Shaka--an illegitimate son of a minor chief who had been expelled from his tribe--built into a spartan and fearsome army that eventually conquered and pacified a vast empire.

Much like "Macbeth," a trio of witch-doctors (sangomas) had prophesied great things for Shaka, and the Zulu leader's wife (Pampata) pushed him toward his goals, although Msomi says that it was Shaka's ambitious and vengeful mother who most neatly echoes Lady Macbeth. And Shaka's death, at the hands of a betraying cabal of half-brothers and a trusted counselor, is more the stuff of "Julius Caesar" than of "Macbeth," right down to the equivalent of "Et tu, Brute" which the stabbed king was said to utter at his beloved Iduna.

"Umabatha," however, follows Shakespeare's "Macbeth" plot rather faithfully, although the spirit of the production--with its lines of fur-draped, beaded warriors leaping to the sound of war drums and chants, shrieking sangomas and leopard-skinned royalty in majestic procession--is certainly more high-spirited and less murky than most productions of the Scottish play. "Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth," wrote one prominent New York reviewer, "generates a kick of visceral pleasure seldom found in the current crop of Broadway blockbusters."

As such, "Umabatha" is also a departure from the anti-apartheid literature and plays that were South Africa's chief cultural export during the years of the white minority government. Since the peaceful transition to black rule led by Nelson Mandela, most other writers have been dealing with the painful challenges and birth pangs of the new South Africa.

Msomi--with his many business interests, including Johannesburg-based Sasani, an international company providing post-production facilities--is representative of the new opportunities for blacks in his native country. But he said that he always has been more interested in writing and directing plays dealing less specifically with political issues and more with the general themes of survival, as he did in such works as "Halala" and "The Day, the Night," both of which were presented off-Broadway.

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