Theatre is back with another bio-play, this time a musical exploring the life of Nelson Mandela, the family man turned revolutionary leader turned world-renowned politician. Although this was created in collaboration with the Mandela family, this musical doesn’t give us unfettered access to the complexities of the legend himself, instead choosing to take a more distanced overview of the South African political landscape.
The book, written by Laiona Michelle, sweeps over 30 years of Mandela’s life – from the early 1960s when he was already an activist campaigning against apartheid and consequently sentenced to a lifetime in jail on Robben Island, to 1990, when he was finally released from prison.
Mandela uses every facet of the stage as the play unravels and the songs proceed with full force – the South African government, condensed into the figure of Prime Minister by Earl Carpenter, inhabits the raised balconies on the stage, while the underground network of anti-apartheid activists burrows deep into the stage itself.
It’s an innovative use of the small stage by set designer Hannah Beachler, even though its sparseness hampers the audience’s imagination at times (with no real set, we can only catch snatches of the harrowing time Mandela faced on Robben Island through the songs of the Warden, played by Earl Carpenter).
Mandela is a man most people in the audience have some sort of knowledge about – compared to the eponymous character of Hamilton or the period setting of Les Mis, Mandela is a man who lived in our lifetime and this musical chooses to embrace our familiarity with him, thereby eschewing much of the politics that makes Mandela such a complicated force. It’s this that makes Mandela, played by American actor Michael Luwoye, the weakest part of his own musical. Reduced to platitudes and repetitive political slogans, Mandela is stripped of any dimensionality in both the book and the songs (music and lyrics by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky).
“Danielle Fiamanya commands the material with full breadth of emotion”.
It falls to his wife, Winnie Mandela, played by Danielle Fiamanya, to fill in these gaps for us. While her character is given more shades – we at least get to witness her evolution from devout housewife to activist executing a ‘reign of terror’ in Soweto – and Fiamanya commands the material with the full breadth of emotion.
When the Borowsky brothers focus on building the overall atmosphere of South Africa, the musical is at its peak – being thrown right into the action of a protest at the beginning, with rousing music and a tight-knit chorus, the influence of South African music in the songs, the Praise singer, Prudence Jezile, undulating in the background with her impassioned voice. These are the signs of an alternate, fresh musical with style. It’s a shame then that the substance is so sorely lacking.
The oversentimentality of the musical form makes it harder to break deeper than surface level unless every single song is a ballad. Luwoye as Mandela tries his hardest to showcase the bleak and harrowing reality of his life sentence and his inner turmoil at not being a present father but the whole thing feels Disney-fied. This is especially apparent when his young daughters, Zindzi and Zeni Mandela (played by Leanne Robinson and Nomfusi Ngonyama respectively) imagine what their daddy looks like – tall, dark, and handsome, presumably – in a song that feels imitative of Frozen.
This is a musical that has all the tenets of being commercial, with a 20-plus strong cast, and all the beats of the action covered. But it has none of the heart of the story, despite the company’s best attempts. This doesn’t mean this show isn’t enjoyable to watch, but being so simple and non-substantive, it’s a forgettable one after the fact.