Review: An African Choir’s Disillusioning Journey to the West

In the dimness, something is spinning. As the lights slowly rise, that something turns out to be a man whirling a ropelike tube over his head like a lasso, a tube that makes a sound like singing. As the stage grows brighter, we see that the man is surrounded by four vocalists. It is their song we are hearing, and it is glorious.

This initial play of image and sound introduces the strengths and half-realized potential of “Broken Chord,” a South African production that had its United States premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday. The man is the choreographer Gregory Maqoma, who created the work with the composer Thuthuka Sibisi. The aim is historical resurrection and redress.

“Broken Chord” is about the African Choir, a long-forgotten group of missionary-educated South African singers who toured England and North America in the 1890s, encountering racism and other pernicious colonial attitudes. They are embodied by Maqoma — who has said this is his final production as a performer — and an outstanding quartet of South African vocalists. We watch them on their journey, conjuring the invisible boat with movement and their pride with bouncy song and a quick-footed advance. We see their excitement and hope at the sight of London. And then the trouble starts.

Wherever “Broken Chord” tours, it engages a local choir — the Choir of Trinity Wall Street here in New York. Those singers are the villains, and the butt of the jokes. This casting idea, economical for touring, also cleverly recreates an encounter between African artists and the West. But it’s a crudely rendered collision.

The white choir, massing menacingly around the Africans, sings some Handel and “God Save the Queen,” but also “Why are you here?” and “Go home!” and “You are not like us!” This lack of subtlety is echoed in text spoken by the African performers: “You think I am only here to be a good Black, just to sing for you, but in truth I am here to disrupt and dismantle.”

That line earned whoops of approval on Thursday night. The production is righteous in its anger against — as Maqoma explains in a cri de coeur speech — a supposed clash of cultures in which one side has all the power. But “Broken Chord” makes the British one-dimensional and thus a little absurd, sacrificing both historical complexity and theatrical impact.

Maqoma has said this is his final production as a performer.Credit…Julieta Cervantes

The show is better at communicating the Africans’ pain and pathos. Maqoma acts throughout like a human antenna, receiving vibrations and translating them into serpentine or avian motion, spins, rhythmic stomping, Michael Jackson poses and, climactically, a fevered shaking. Often, his improvised-looking responses work against or on top of a musical foundation provided by everyone else. Sometimes he idles, sometimes he makes everything take off.

The show is impressionistic and episodic. An African rendition of the Lord’s Prayer disintegrates into simian grunting, a vision through racist eyes. Maqoma speaks of questioning “the smiling Gospel.” He trades his swinging tube for a smoking censer. He and the quartet make a rhythmic song and dance out of kneading flour. They ripple their hands like fire in shafts of light. And occasionally a simple line of text cuts through: “I want to go home.”

Near the end, the white choir gets a word in, with the Purcell aria “Dido’s Lament”: “Remember me but forget my fate.” But the African response, at first soft and sad and then intensely forceful, in the alternately heartbreaking and invigorating soprano of Nokuthula Magubane, is “They shall not change.” The verdict, one hopes, is overly pessimistic. The sound of the voices is undeniable.

“Broken Chord”

Through Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music;

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