Monday, March 21, 2016

Real African story loses the beat: My Heart is the Drum

Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako in My Heart is the Drum (Mark Kitaoka)

My Heart is the Drum
Village Theatre
Issaquah: Through April 24, 2016
Everett: April 29-May 27, 2016
There are many aspects of the production My Heart is the Drum at Village Theatre to really like. The technical elements are gorgeous. The set (Carey Wongas) and costumes (Karen Ann Ledger) are vibrant and beautiful. The music feels authentically and pulsatingly Ghanaian. The cast is winning, with Gypsy Rose Lee award-winner Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako in the lead.

Sonia Dawkins’ choreography is quite wonderful. And there is a tiny dancer, Lydia Delane Olson, who is a revelation at such a young age.

It is a world premiere, which means that it has never had a full production before – only workshops from which point the writers, composer Phillip Palmer, lyricist Stacey Luftig and librettist Jennie Redling, would continue to make changes. The creatives are all clearly earnest and well-researched in their efforts. One can almost tell, via the staging, just how much they want to tell a good story.
 
Having seen this musical workshopped at Village’s Festival of New Musicals, I looked forward to it and to see the changes/improvements that could be made for a full production. The musical is set in a place not normally portrayed in American musical theater. A cast full of black performers and African music is an exciting prospect to see and hear in white-bread Seattle.

Unfortunately, the basic script is not ready to go forward without major rewrites. More about that in a moment.

Based in Ghana, a young almost-high school-graduate, Efua (Nako) longs for university in Accra, while her father needs her to help grow cotton. When she leaves without permission to accompany her cousin Balinda (a sweetly innocent Joell Weil), they find themselves kidnapped, raped and sex-trafficked, among criminal Ghanaians who know little about HIV/AIDS, even in the year 2000.

The writers want very much to have the audience understand the economic entanglements that prevented Ghanaian cotton farmers from making a profit. They want to talk about the horrid plight of young women in Africa, if not worldwide. They want to address AIDS in the world, perhaps in the “third” world. All of this is laudable and challenging to insert into any musical. They do succeed in creating a musical environment for much uplifting potential, which is a difficult area.

However, the writers paint in primary colors. There are no muted colors, much less shades of gray. Clichés are hit head on and brake marks are completely absent. You could clothe the “bad men” in the second act with Snidely Whiplash capes and twirly mustaches and it wouldn’t be more obvious. Each song stands alone, uncombined with dialogue in the vein of a lot of more modern musicals, where plot and song speed the telling of the tale in more compelling ways.

The first act, currently about an hour, could easily be told in half that time. The song A World Beyond Kafrona could easily be combined with snippets of dialogue (song, “daddy I want to leave” “daughter we can’t afford it, you have to stay home” song “I’m leaving anyway” song). This is just an example.

If the above descriptions don’t dissuade you, good. Village deserves to be supported for their passion in presenting new musicals and giving them a chance to grow. The production does have a great cast who do their very best to portray this proud nation with respect and honor.

However, I would not recommend younger children, even younger than about 16, to see this show. The subject matter is quite dark and a child needs to emotionally be able to handle those aspects of the plot.

For more information, call 425-392-2202 or go to www.villagetheatre.org