Life, etc

Orpheus in Africa: Celebration of an unsung African-American musical pioneer

By Marianne Thamm 9 February 2015

Race, identity and the meaning of freedom is the scaffolding that props up David Kramer's masterful new musical, ‘Orpheus in Africa’, about an African-American singing ensemble who toured colonial South Africa as the ruthless dispossession of black South Africans had already begun. An accomplished South African cast brings this world-class production vividly to life. By MARIANNE THAMM.

History and heritage – often those parts written out of official accounts in Apartheid South Africa – have always formed the bedrock of David Kramer’s oeuvre.

Together with his long-time creative partner, the late, great Taliep Petersen, Kramer explored the devastation of forced removals in his 1986 hit District Six the Musical and the roots of slave music in the Cape in the 2005 production Ghoema. His 2008 Afrikaans musical, Die Ballade van Koos Sas told the story of the fugitive San hero of the title who escaped the law for five years before he was shot dead in Springbok. (His skull was later put on display in the Montague museum, which is where Kramer first encountered it and was inspired to excavate and celebrate his untold history.)

Kramer first came upon the story of Orpheus McAdoo’s Virginia Jubilee Singers and their remarkable two-year tour of South Africa between 1890 and 1892 while researching Ghoema. Kramer wondered what it was exactly that had so captured the imagination of white audiences, and that had led to the great success of the troupe who trekked across South Africa performing in large cities and small towns.

He wondered also how McAdoo and his singers had negotiated and navigated the crude racial politics and an environment decidedly hostile to black Africans.

At the time, Cecil John Rhodes had just been appointed Prime Minster of the Cape Colony and was about to promulgate a series of laws aimed at benefiting mine and industry moguls and which further dispossessed black South Africans. These were laws such as the Glen Grey Act, which created an individual system of land tenure – rather than communal – and which forced Xhosa men into labouring on commercial farms and industry. A “Hut Tax” also forced the country’s black majority into badly paid labour in the colonial economy.

This was the backdrop to Orpheus McAdoo’s arrival at the Cape in 1890, after a less-than-successful tour to Scotland where he met Lady Loch, the then-wife of the British Governor of the Cape. It was Loch who invited McAdoo and his singers.

McAdoo, an educated, freed slave who studied at the Hampton Institute, was a colleague of author, educator and presidential adviser, Booker T Washington.

In his programme note, Kramer explains that Washington and McAdoo were adherents of post-Civil War “racial uplift” politics, a movement that stressed the upward mobility of African Americans and promoted images of “black civility and refinement” which they no doubt believed would lead to a shift in white opinion and attitudes.

“They hoped that this strategy would result in the removal of social barriers to their progress. While in South Africa McAdoo followed this line of thinking by presenting himself and the members of his troupe as refined and sophisticated performers,” Kramer explains.

Dean Balie and Sne Dladla

Photo: Dean Balie and scene-stealing Sne Dladla (Picture Jesse Kramer)

Northern leaders, like W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), were much more militant and challenged Washington’s politics of co-operation and collaboration with whites.

While white audiences at first viewed McAdoo and his singers as a “curiosity”, they soon tired of their repertoire of sophisticated operatic extracts and secular and traditional gospel songs. Influenced by white minstrels who employed “blackface” to enforce crude racial stereotypes, these audiences began to demand this more popular and form of entertainment which reinforced a racist hegemony rather than challenged it.

In Kramer’s hands, the tale of Orpheus McAdoo and his Virginia Jubilee Singers has been turned into a masterful musical that movingly explores race and identity with subtle self-conscious humour and deep respect.

Kramer has gathered an extraordinary cast of young, talented South Africans led by the towering and confident star tenor Aubrey Poo.

Poo, who has featured in soapies such as Muvhango and Scandal, encapsulates the contradictions of this character with his doubts and insecurities as well as his supreme confidence when doing what he loves best – singing and leading his choir.

The charismatic Poo dominates the stage in his top hat and tails and expertly delivers the unique vocal style of the period, literally carrying the show on his broad shoulders.

Jill Levenberg, as the pious and dedicated matriarch of the ensemble, Lucy Morten, is also impressive, as is Lynelle Kenned as Matie Allen, McAdoo’s fiancée. There are far too many excellent performances to single out here, but each is given ample room to showcase their talent.

Lynelle Kenned

Photo: Lynelle Kenned as Mattie Allen (Picture Jesse Kramer)

But there is one performer who stole every scene in which he appeared; the brilliant comic actor, Sne Dladla, in various roles as Egbert Washburn, a trooper and a student leader. Dladla’s performances reflect all the great comic traditions from Charles Chaplin to Groucho Marx. He has a face and mouth as malleable as Wallace from the animated Wallace and Gromit series, and a comedic stage presence that is simply irresistible. His is an unforgettable performance both physically and vocally.

Shana Shandu

Photo: Sanda Shandu (Picture Jesse Kramer)

Kramer has written at least 13 new songs, once again affirming his reputation as one of this country’s finest songwriters. The searing “The Mirror” at the end of Act One is one such composition. Kramer’s script too is nuanced and filled with poetry.

When confronted by a newspaper reporter who suggests that he change his repertoire to include “plantation songs” to suit popular white taste McAddo declares; “Oh Mr Mitchell, why am I not surprised? You are blinded by your prejudice. Seems when you look at me, all you see is a coon. What is this obsession with minstrelsy? Why would you have me paint a black mask on a face that is already black?”

And here is an extract of “The Mirror”, the rousing song that follows.

“Now it seems

I am the mirror

And the world

Reflects in me

And although I glare and frown

The audience sees a clown

The fool they want me to be


There’s a battle to be fought

But not with the sword or gun

I will fight them with my mind

With my heart and with my tongue


But I will not let my future

Be determined by my past


I’ll refuse to play the fool

And I will never wear

The Mask.”

Apart from Kramer’s original compositions Orpheus in Africa includes of a variety of beloved spirituals such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, “Oh Dem Golden Slippers”, “The Gospel Train” as well as a reworking of ragtime pioneer Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons (Fools) Look Alike to Me”. Musical arrangements, the supremely talented Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, are innovative and bring fresh resonance to familiar songs.

Every other aspect of this production, too, from set design by the veteran Saul Radomsky as well as the magnificent costumes by Birrie Le Roux to the lighting design by Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis and sound by Mark Malherbe, render this a world-class home-grown product that deserves an international stage. Don’t miss it. DM

Orpheus in Africa is on at the Fugard Theatre until 23 February.

Main photo: Aubrey Poo as Orpheus McAdoo (Picture Jessie Kramer)



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