For Somi Kakoma, ‘Dreaming Zenzile’ Was Years In The Making
Miriam Makeba was one of the first African singers to make it big around the world — wowing viewers of “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959 with her big voice and vibrant stage presence. In the early ‘60s, she sang at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party (yes, that birthday party) and charted on Billboard.
If stardom came easily, international politics proved more complicated. Makeba was raised in a South Africa that refused to grant even the most basic civil rights to its Black majority. The South African government revoked Makeba’s passport in the 1960s after she spoke critically of apartheid. The singer had to miss her own mother’s funeral.
But Makeba only became more outspoken, lending her support to the civil rights cause in the U.S. and marrying a Black Panther. It was only after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, more than 30 years after her exile, that she finally returned home to South Africa.
For the Grammy-nominated jazz singer Somi Kakoma, Makeba was an inspiration.
“I feel as though she is the first person who made room for myself and really any African artist,” she explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “She was the first one to really hold space on the global cultural stage in a real way, and certainly the first vocalist and female artist to do so.”
Now Kakoma has turned Makeba’s life into a musical; she is both writer and star of “Dreaming Zenzile,” which had its world premiere at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis last weekend. After its St. Louis run ends Oct. 3, it’s headed to New Jersey, Boston and then an Off Broadway stage in New York City.
Kakoma grew up in Champaign, Illinois, the daughter of immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda. Of Makeba, she said, “My parents loved her. I think most Africans are familiar with her in some way, in some form. Most people grew up with an awareness.”
But, she added, “I didn't have the awareness of her life story, her journey, until I began the research and to the point that I was surprised at how much I didn't know.”
The play’s premiere came almost seven years after Kakoma started working on the project, and more than a year after an abrupt setback. “Dreaming Zenzile” was originally supposed to open in March 2020, but the rapidly escalating global pandemic halted those plans just six days before opening night.
As a resident of New York City, Kakoma tried to take the long view over the play’s postponement.
“I was just thinking, you know, how selfish would it be if I'm sitting here mourning a story,” she recalled. “It took me some time to actually allow myself to mourn that, to mourn the process, which of course I did.”
“Dreaming Zenzile” is the singer’s first real theatrical experience, and she’s onstage for virtually the entire two-hour play, a kinetic presence who embodies both the youthful Makeba’s joyous vocalization and the older Makeba’s exhaustion. She admitted the shows are exhausting.
“The biggest thing that I'm acclimating to is the physical demand,” she said. “It definitely is an athletic endeavor. But I'm excited to lean into the challenge of it, because she deserved that.”
She added that having the premiere in St. Louis has been special for her.
“Being a Midwestern girl, it feels good to be here and driving distance from my mom's house,” she said.
What: “Dreaming Zenzile”
When: Sept. 17 to Oct. 3
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.