Near the beginning of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," a white South African industrialist is asked why he remains in South Africa. "One has to stay there to educate the black workers," he says. "And we'll know we've been successful when they kill us."
Presumably to implement this educational process, the Steppenwolf Company of Chicago commissioned Tug Yourgrau, a white South African playwright, to write "The Song of Jacob Zulu," which is a work rationalizing an act of terrorism. Yourgrau, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 10, has written a piece of agitprop, pure and simple.
The play has only one scene that can actually be called dramatic. In it, the young black who will eventually plant the bomb is traveling north to receive military training. He shares a cheap hotel room with a stranger, who tried to determine the real nature of his journey. Their banter has a cat-and-mouse quality that suggests something is going on beneath the surface. In all the other encounters the surface reality is all there is.
The play is a courtroom drama, using flashbacks that chronicle the events that radicalize the young man. For most of the play he appears remorseful, claming he tried to telephone the police after he placed the bomb, but that the lines for public phones were too long. Later in the play he confesses his only regret is that he did not kill more white people.
As I watched "Jacob Zulu," I kept wonderingif I would have been more receptive to it before the World Trade Center bombing. I doubt it. In the wake of that event, its simpleminded justification of violence is really too appalling.
Normally, plays like this, which present the obvious in the guise of an Important Statement (does anyone really need to be informed that apartheid is evil?), are part of a subscription series. Subscribers have reconciled themselves to the fact that in the course of a season they must endure one evening of penance in exchange for four of pleasure. But can you expect audiences to pay Broadway prices to be browbeaten?
None of the acting can deepen the material. All that makes "Jacob Zulu" pleasurable is the delicate harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who act as a singing chorus to the play. Even here there is an odd disparity between the radiant gentleness of the music and the bloody act it justifies.
Here is a curiosity. By no measure could Tug Yourgrau's play "The Song of Jacob Zulu," politically correct to the point of ambivalence, which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night, be considered a musical. Yet the music is its most pungent constituent - the music is what leaves its lasting, fleeting impression on the night air.
This music is provided by a South African unaccompanied group of nine voices, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which is led by Joseph Shabalala and first found fame as the driving spirit behind Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. It is impressive - its strange harmonies and halting rhythms suggesting a haunting world of pain and courage, all but alien to our upholstered comforts.
The play believes it is about racism and apartheid - and to an extent it is. It is also about terrorism - the nightmare you never wanted to encounter; and it is trying to give that nightmare a daytime face. Motive, it says, can be almost all - to comprehend is to forgive.
As the Black Mambazo - functioning throughout as a Greek chorus - tells us right at the outset: "This is a song of a young man called Jacob Zulu, who suffered for the sins of South Africa." The point the muddled play makes - but, and here is its ambivalence, never quite faces - is that this suffering explains, if not quite legitimizes, the act of terrorism.
Ends justifiying means, violence betting violence, politics (the correct kind of politics) expiating the slaughter of the innocent, the indiscriminate blood of lambs and children. Do they?
Perhaps. History is often little more than the record of terrorism posthumously sanctioned by victory.
But even the traditionally hardcore liberal New York theater audience - conveniently forgetting, as always, the sad story of our own Native Americans - and very ready to be sympathetically revolted by the admitted horrors of apartheid, and to revile, at the drop of a gold Krugerrand, white South Africa, could today have too fresh a view for its comfort of terrorism on our World Trade Center doorstep.
A case for understanding its terrorism might have to be a little more persuasive than Yourgrau's clumsy, agitprop play, awkwardly structured and dully written, and depending on the passion of its situations to make good the flatness of its dramaturgy. The timing is off.
But the story - based on fact - is a good one. A young man, Jacob Zulu, the bright, honeset and sensitive son of a preacher, is led by oppression and bitterness to an irrevocable act of terrorism, the bombing of a shopping mall, for which he is inevitably executed by the same government that encompassed his oppression.
A cliche, but none the worse for that - so is "Hamlet." Yet the play rarely transfigures its theme; its agenda is never proved by art but left as politics in the unargued raw.
It is good to have some kind of political play on Broadway - on that score it is welcome - but I only wish it had proved a better, more thoughtful and more thought-provoking play.
The production - which originated at Chicago's properly admired Steppenwolf Theater - is adept. The director Eric Simonson makes the best use he can of the always impressive commentating chorus, and, helped by the plain ramps and props of Kevin Rigdon's setting, uses the amorphous fluidity of the play to its best advantage.
The performances - not only from those heart-stirring singers - are generally good to impressive, with the ever-commanding Zakes Mokae splendid as three contrasted characters, and K. Todd Freeman quite remarkable in the title role of Jacob.
But Yourgrau's play itself - well-meaning to a fault - no more questions answers than answers questions. When you leave a play presumably meant to make you think and feel, and leave thinking of the music and feeling more than a little intellectually cheated, the balance is not in its favor even if you do exit sort of humming.
The music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo rises to greet the audience as if sound were a tidal wave. These nine male a cappella singers from South Africa, who are at the heart of the new Broadway play "The Song of Jacob Zulu," make music so insidiously penetrating that you seem to absorb it with your whole being rather than just the ears. Fond of reverberant harmonies that can skirt doo-wop and gospel, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is not loud in volume or showy in its effects. Rather, this group, best known to American audiences for its "Graceland" collaborations with Paul Simon, seems to have a ventriloquist's gift for tossing its voices lightly through space. The voices seem to be pitched to aurally subliminal frequencies more suggestive of heaven than of earth.
Because their unaccompanied music rises out of nowhere, the group's first entrance in "Jacob Zulu," from a deep well far upstage at the Plymouth Theater, has a theatricality so stunning the rest of the evening is hard pressed to match it (and never does). Simply dressed, the men climb to stage level and then advance toward the audience as if to push their airy music forward. They keep coming and coming, their singing expanding as they walk, and by the time they reach the stage's edge, the whole house is ready to embrace them.
The love affair between these singers and the audience lasts right through the curtain call. But when the group is not in full cry, "Jacob Zulu" often settles for an earthbound earnestness that will be most easily embraced by those who don't mind some boredom in pursuit of a good cause. The play for which Ladysmith Black Mambazo serves as an informal chorus is a worthy drama about apartheid that lacks the poetic texture, eloquence, surprises and deep feeling -- in short, the voice -- of its music. While Ladysmith Black Mambazo's distinctive chorales evoke the tragic weight of its origins in the hostels of South African mining camps, where indentured black men were severed from freedom and their families, Tug Yourgrau's script often narrates its tragic tale in the utilitarian, pedagogical language of a concerned outside observer.
The playwright, a white South African who immigrated to the United States when he was 10, has worked up his script from an actual 1985 incident, in which Andrew Zondo, a young black man, placed a bomb at a shopping center at the height of the Christmas rush, killing several civilians and injuring scores more. Mr. Yourgrau, who developed his play at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, asks what could turn a religious, scholarly, gentle 19-year-old like Jacob Zulu (as Zondo is renamed) into a terrorist.
When this issue is finally dealt with directly in Act II, "Jacob Zulu" becomes fleetingly dramatic, a quality that eludes it in the expository, meandering, sometimes confusing first act. But even then, Mr. Yourgrau writes not with the vivid detail of a journalist or the cathartic power of a dramatist, but with the lucid equanimity of a civics teacher. The courtroom setting allows Jacob's liberal white lawyer (Gerry Becker) to make the expected case with rhetoric: Jacob was driven to his act of terrorism by the equally grotesque crimes committed by an evil, racist society. It's a rousing speech (and might have received more than scattered applause from a New York audience had not the World Trade Center bombing cast a cloud over any rationale for terrorism). But we knew this argument before we arrived at the theater. "Jacob Zulu" might have been fresh and moving if Mr. Yourgrau had illuminated its title character as an intimately observed person impaled upon this conflict rather than as a symbolic archetype plugged into a predictable debate.
K. Todd Freeman, who plays Zulu, is a big talent, poised to play a much deeper character than the opaque, superficial role he has been given. A slight young American actor who only a few months ago was camping it up as Roy Cohn's nurse in the Los Angeles staging of "Angels in America," Mr. Freeman makes Zulu a soft-spoken, wide-eyed idealist who is transformed by grief and injustice from an aspiring teacher to a coolly impassioned African National Congress militant. His final trial confessional, in which his defiance of the white court is at war with his genuinely pious guilt over killing innocents, seems to break his slight, bony physique as it cracks his spirit. That the speech produces less anguish for the audience has nothing to do with Mr. Freeman's acting and everything to do with the fact that Zulu has previously been shown as a blank two-dimensional figure in bland mural-like vignettes flashing back to his family life, his schooling, his radicalization and other stations of the cross.
The acting ensemble and pungently atmospheric production surrounding Mr. Freeman are of the same consistently high quality that Steppenwolf last brought to Broadway in "The Grapes of Wrath." The supporting cast includes another promising young American actor, Danny Johnson, as a friend and comrade of Zulu's, and, in a varied trio of roles, the fine South African actor Zakes Mokae, whose cyclonic explosion of political rage is the evening's polemical flash point.
Eric Simonson, a superb director making his New York debut, brings a choreographer's finesse to the stylized storytelling that is the most adventurous aspect of Mr. Yourgrau's script. Using a set by Kevin Rigdon suggestive of an African village square, crisp costumes by Erin Quigley and impressively nuanced lighting by Robert Christen, Mr. Simonson moves the action from courtroom to campus to church to Mozambique and back again with swirling company movements at once fluid and precise. The men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, standing in for everyone from evangelical worshipers to Zulu spirits, become a single constantly regenerating organism, ethereal to watch even when their voices are stilled.
Not without reason, the lyrics to the men's songs are helpfully projected in supertitles, but it is indicative of the evening that these words, too, quickly prove so prosaic that one soon loses the compulsion to look up and read them. "The Song of Jacob Zulu" is always at its best when intruding least on the unforgettable song of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The good news is that the permeating tremolo of Joseph Shabalala's voice and the sinuous urgency of K. Todd Freeman's performance converge powerfully in "The Song of Jacob Zulu," a story of South Africa at the edge of freedom that brings Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company back to Broadway.
Indeed, there are moments during "Zulu" when musical lyricism and compelling ensemble work are effectively harnessed to an explosive but ultimately tragic tale.
But more typically, playwright Tug Yourgrau and his collaborators have flattened this true story into a bloodless, impressionistic montage that lacks narrative thrust. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to "Sarafina!" and "Jacob Zulu" will suffer in the comparison, making its chances for a lengthy stay on Broadway iffy.
The son of a minister (Zakes Mokae), Jacob Zulu (Freeman) is slowly drawn to membership in the African National Congress. Committed at first to non-violence, he's radicalized by the brutalization of blacks at the hands of the police and the military.
After studying in Mozambique and Angola, he is instructed to find a political target for a bombing and chooses an office in a mall of the state-run airline. After placing the bomb, Jacob fails in his attempts to telephone a warning to clear the mall and simply walks away. The explosion kills four, including three children, and injures 50 others.
Much of the play is taken up with Jacob's trial and its inevitable outcome, though only one courtroom scene -- in which the victims' relatives and friends testify in a free-form litany of pain and confusion -- cuts to the heart.
But the most powerful scenes occur outside the legal arena, whether between father and son or among the people who take over Jacob's political education. And in the most memorable scene, the guilt-ridden Jacob is surrounded by shield-wielding ancestors in the play's major attempt to break out of its realistic bonds.
The main thematic difference between "Sarafina!" and "The Song of Jacob Zulu" is that the former was about the evil of apartheid, while the new work is about those for whom "the good news" of apartheid's end comes too late.
Yourgrau's inspiration was to build the play around Jacob Zulu and to use the great South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as a chorus , both commenting upon the story and advancing it.
Thus the play opens with the group marching downstage, led by the incomparable Joseph Shabalala, all dressed in oatmeal-colored linen and lit in a soft yellow light, singing "Smother the fire/open your hearts." The lyrics are projected on the proscenium, a subtle and welcome help. Aurally, there's a fascinating symbiosis between the group and Freeman.
But while the choice of Ladysmith-as-chorus was inspired, the execution isn't. Yourgrau, a South African emigre living in Boston, hasn't universalized Jacob's story in the way the songs promise; it's a static account of one schlemiel's incompetence and rotten luck.
Eric Simonson's direction is no help, either; "Zulu" plays slack and full of lulls despite the story and the vibrant music underscoring it.
Kevin Rigdon has done much better work as scenic designer for Steppenwolf. On the production end, only Erin Quigley's costumes and Robert Christen's exceptionally variegated lighting rise above the rest.