By Eric J. Grimm
The Playroom Theater in Times Square is often a contradictory space; it’s an intimate black box that plays host to the kind of energetic productions that might feel better suited to larger theaters or concert halls. That said, what a thrill it is to be so close to performers who take over the room so wholly and confidently. Such is the case with Africa My Beautiful, an arresting musical conversation between singers Thuli Dumakude and Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. The South African and Zimbabwean natives share stories and song with each other in an effort to preserve their cultural heritage and promote social activism through music. As a showcase of Dumakude and Tawengwa’s talents individually and collaboratively it is a success from the start. That it works as a structured piece of theater is all the more impressive.
Dumakude and Tawengwa, playing themselves, frame the piece as a meeting over coffee to share their mutual respect for each other and their experiences growing up in Africa. Dumakude came of age in Apartheid-era South Africa balancing village life with aspirations that took her to the city. Tawengwa was raised in suburban post-colonial Zimbabwe where she attended private school before moving to America to attend Princeton. While Tawengwa’s circumstances differ significantly from the elder Dumakude, the younger performer addresses the complicated nature of being part of Africa’s born free generation. The two relate stories of influential family members and personal struggles against oppression with fervor and hope for continued progress. No director is listed in the program or promotional materials; the duo have assembled a convincing staged conversation that feels unrehearsed and organic.
The performers forge an even stronger connection through song with similarly dynamic voices that blend to make mesmerizing harmonies. While their dialogue would have us assume that the two are coming together for the first time, each ably sings songs from the other’s culture and life experiences. It should unravel the carefully constructed nature of a work built around a seemingly impromptu conversation, but instead we see that two women separated by geography and generation are telling similar stories and singing the same songs of cultural pride and the need for change. There isn’t a single musical number that isn’t passionate and captivating. The last one in particular, an original composition from Tawengwa, is a call to action addressed to her peers making for a fittingly open conclusion that promises more social activism and beautiful music from these superlative vocalists.
Africa My Beautiful is showing at The Playroom Theater (151 W. 46th St.) through September 30th. For tickets, visit http://www.theplayroomtheater.com