Mama Africa’s life explored on stage

American professor Niyi Coker brings the beauty and struggles of Miriam Makebas life to the Artscape Theatre stage.

It was a humbling journey full of lessons for American professor Niyi Coker, who is the writer and director of the production Mama Africa, the Musical, which will be staged at the Artscape
Theatre from today, Thursday February 2 until Sunday February 12.

Mr Coker, a professor of African-American studies, theatre and cinema arts at the University of Missouri in St Louis, spent about two years researching the life of the late singer and civil activist, Miriam Makeba, who spent 40 years in exile in America. He then wrote Mama Africa, the Musical, which has since received recognition from the American Consulate for Black History Month, which is celebrated in February.

Mama Africa, the Musical is the story of the life and singing career of Miriam Makeba, told through a series of her songs.

Mr Coker said it was a “no-brainer” to have written a production on the life of Ms Makeba.

“I came to Cape Town because of the University of Missouri’s partnership with the University of the Western Cape (UWC). With the collaboration and working on strengthening theatre and arts here, we thought about doing a mutual production that will resonate in America and South Africa.

“Fortunately for us, there was no lack of subjects in the sense that Miriam Makeba is someone who stands for two sides of the Atlantic (ocean).”

He said Ms Makeba lived in South Africa and was exiled to America, and during the apartheid years, she was the one who spread the story of apartheid in America through arts and through her singing.

“She kept the story alive in America and while Madiba was in prison, she just kept resonating the story in the States.”

“This is a story of the American civil rights movement and it’s a story of South Africa’s struggle. She saw in America things that reminded her of South Africa because it was the same struggle for emancipation.”

The musical starts on the night before Ms Makeba was to leave America after having been away from home for 40 years.

“She wasn’t around when her mom died, she wasn’t around when everyone died or had children. She’s going home tomorrow, so she goes through that torment. She starts to reflect: ‘Am I really going home? How did I get here in the first place, that I never went home for 40 years?’

“That journey has cost her, her only child, and her child is not going to go back with her because the child is buried away from home. She lost two grandchildren away from home, and now she is going back alone and her mother’s not going to be there when she gets home. There’s been a lot of changes in her life. Does she go to sleep or do you stay up and think about this stuff?”

He said the audience will see her life at home, how she left and what happened afterwards.

“Each song begins to lead the story. It’s parallel with the civil rights struggle in America and the struggle for liberation in South Africa.

“She was part of the movement in America, and while she was there, she watched the Sharpeville massacre.

“She was watching the Soweto uprising happen, so these parallels are very powerful.”

Mr Coker said it was important for people to know her story because while things had changed, there was a new generation who were aware that some things would remain the same. “Now in America, people want to know about Donald Trump and how the new government will affect the world. They don’t realise that we have already been here in some form.

“They need to realise that people gave their lives and that there is always a positive story after a struggle. It’s not always doom and gloom. We have to fight these obstacles and look at the examples of people who without fear struggled like Miriam Makeba.

“The only thing she could do was take her only child and move to America and force her child, Bongi, to live in exile, and then die in exile. That’s deep. We look at this on the surface, but when you sit down and think if this were to happen to me, would I be able to deal with it? How would I deal with it? That’s when you begin to appreciate the gravity of it.”

He said audiences can expect to see lots of raw talent from Cape Town, with some of the cast hitting the stage for the first time.

“There is a lot of powerful talent from Cape Town, many who were unemployed but are now employed because of this. The actors went to New York and had people in awe and in tears.”

Another aspect is the music itself, which tells the stories of South Africa’s constant struggle.

And being an American directing a South African production, he said, he learnt a lot from everyone who helped.

“It was difficult, but it’s difficult if you make it difficult for yourself. If you I say I have to learn, you humble yourself (and) it’s easier. When you let everyone else teach you, it’s so much better. “

Ticket prices range from R100 to R120 and are available through Artscape Dial-a-Seat (021 421 7839) and Computicket outlets.