‘Why we are honouring Miriam Makeba with Mama Africa’

Students of Western Cape Sports School with Alhaji Teju Kareem, Prof Fikeni, Mr. Rotimi Awelewa, Thandi Swaartbooi and their teachers after the show

The 10-day run of Miriam Makeba’s Mama Africa The Musical at Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, comes to a glorious close today. Since it opened on February 2 to a full house of enthusiastic audiences, Artscape, with its hundreds of theatre patrons, has indeed been a sort of mecca for patrons, who are genuinely interested in the career and life story of the enigmatic cultural icon and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba.  
The show, which has been adjudged an all-round success by the management of Artscape, is, in a way, an image-repairing project for Nigeria with its sometimes foggy reputations among South Africans, especially in view of recent tension that emerged following the killing of a Nigerian in the hands of some South African security operatives.
The musical is written and directed by a Nigerian, Prof. Niyi Coker (Jr), a University of Ife-trained theatre artiste, who has, however, spent over three decades teaching and practising theatre in the United States of America. And though produced by the United Kingdom office of Zmirage Multimedia Company, the executive producer is Lagos-based renowned theatre technician, Wasee Teju Kareem, who is also its Technical Director, and as well Chief Executive Officer of the production company. Also in the crew are no less than 10 other Nigerians working in various departments of the production from technical to administration and communication.
It was the second time the musical will be berthing in Cape Town. In fact, it had been borne through a collaboration of the University of West Cape and University of Missouri, St. Louis, where Coker Jnr is the Desmond Lee professor of African and African-American Studies. It was realised through the collaboration of the ZM Makeba Trust. After a successful first run in Cape Town, the show had then moved on to the United States, where it had a total of 10 performances in three states.
The current return is through the United kingdom office of the Nigerian company, ZMirage Multimedia Company, led by theatre technician, Kareem, who had secured the franchise for the musical. After Cape Town, the musical will tour the United Kingdom, and later Nigeria before the year ends.
At its opening, which had a ceremonial colouration, the Nigerian  professionals were star attractions, as they rubbed shoulders with such distinguished guests as United States Consul-General to Cape Town, Teddy Taylor, the CEO of The Artscape, Marlene LeRoux, Richard T. Moody, Simone Heradien of Artscape amongst others.
On Friday, as the production coasts home to its climatic closing this weekend, the 40-man cast and about 12 intercontinental crew members, were full of pride and joy at the impact their sojourn at Artscape had made, especially as they were visibly satisfied at the impression the daily presentations registered in the minds of the hundreds of patrons that had savoured the rich display of resourceful African music, dance, poetry, acting  and so on, amidst sophisticated technical input, supervised by ZMirage.
For one, it was a significant statement made even for Artscape, which usually exhibit 90 per cent western-oriented theatre contents for its mostly African audience consumption. Mama Africa was an eye-opener at the drawing power of an all-African cast performance, especially if it enjoys the right mix of story, performance and direction.
In a post-performance meeting with the cast and crew after Thursday’s show, the CEO of Artscape Theatre Centre, LeRoux, confessed to have seen the show almost every night since it opened and also seen quite a few people, who have seen the show more than once. LeRouz encouraged the actors to emulate the icon Miriam Makeba and continue to use their versatile talents to speak out for social reformation. Also in attendance at the meeting was Prof. Somadoda Fikeni, a member of parliament, an activist and the Chairperson of Artscape’s Board, who said he was excited about the uniqueness of the musical, as he praised and encouraged the cast and crew.
One of the guests on Thursday night, who, on seeing school children who had come to see the play, stated categorically that Mama Africa The Musical is the way to teach history, especially to the younger generation so that they can connect better with their roots.
Several audience members had come out of the hall at the end of each show wiping tears as the performance evoked a lot of emotions and roused in some the will to stand up even more for their rights.
There was a particularly instructive incident on Friday, when some crew members – all wearing the Mama Africa t-shirt – paid a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for most of his 27-year incarceration. An ex-political prisoner, now tour guide at the Robben Island, Mr. Sipho Msomi, on sighting the t-shirts with Miriam Makeba face embossed on them could not help talking about Mama Africa’s exploits as a musician and activist during the Apartheid era. He encouraged other members of the visiting group to see the play to better understand the travails of those who were incarcerated on Robben Island.
THROUGHOUT its run, Mama Africa’s main attraction for most media workers at the opening performance and subsequent shows, and one of their often-repeated question to the producers and director of the show was, “…but what is your interest in honouring Makeba?” Perhaps, the question was motivated by the fact that Makeba, in spite of her global acclaim, did not really enjoy much celebration among her fellow South African countrymen and women, especially the artistic community. In various statements, however, the top production crew members gave reasons why they embarked on the project.
Teju Kareem (Executive Producer): “Undertaking this project that reenacts the life of Miriam Zenzi Makeba cannot be counted or quantified in rands, naira or in dollars and cents.  Essentially it was not adopted as a production based on any monetary consideration.  It is the kind of social conscious theme we at ZMirage promote. Africa, in particular, needs to tell its own stories. We can no longer leave this assignment to outsiders to define the accomplishment of our own heroes.
True-to-life stories that deal with struggles and overcoming the hurdles and obstacles that have been presented to us as Africans due to history and circumstances must be re-iterated to our people and the next generation. This is even more urgent as the world gets more connected via social media and we witness a cultural colonization in action.  We need to have more stories of our people, who have overcome adversity and triumphed with the interest of the African continent at the centre and the core of their thought and actions.  More so, this is a musical story centred on an African woman. She is the subject, not the object or the sidekick.  To date, there have been no musicals that centre on the power and contributions of African women. Here is one and ZMirage is proud to share it with our youth, so they see and dream about new possibilities, and to share it with the world.
“I joined the creative team of Mama Africa the musical as Associate Lighting Designer/Technical Director in 2016 at the invitation of the director, Niyi Coker Jnr. in furtherance of a technical theatre experiment we started several years earlier. From Cape Town to St. Louis, the production, which was made possible by funding from several organisations, educational and theatrical bodies under the auspices of the University of Western Cape and University of Missouri St. Louis, was a resounding success and it opened my eyes to the genius and humanity of the icon, Miriam Zenzi Makeba, whose life, music and activism it celebrates.
“After the run, we all felt a compulsion to propel the production into a wider international market in order to keep alive the inspirational story of a humble yet world renowned singer, who inspired the revolution that destroyed apartheid and resulted in the release of Nelson Mandela after he served 27 years in prison. Generations yet unborn deserve to know the true story behind the myth of one of South Africa’s most iconic singers and Mama Africa The Musical uses music, dance, chants and other theatrical elements to tell a colourful and impactful story.  
“I have always relished a professional challenge. So, when I was given the opportunity to executive produce Mama Africa The Musical, I was exhilarated even knowing that it would be an uphill task to raise the funding required to take the production from its ancestral home in South Africa to Nigeria in West Africa and further to London in Europe. The going is tough, no doubt, but with support from the admirable and hardworking creative team, as well as the immensely talented and dedicated cast, I know that for years to come, Mama Africa The Musical will be in theatres around the world delighting, inspiring and engaging music enthusiasts.”

Niyi Coker Jr (Writer/Director): “Working on this original musical theatre rendition on the life and contributions of this great woman and global icon (not simply South African) has been a thoroughly humbling experience.  From the research to the writing and directing, with particular focus on intricate aspects of indigenous South African traditions, has been quite educational. The added gift of exploring her non-western discography in relation to the growth and experiences of Mama Miriam Makeba has been doubly indescribable.


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Mama AfricaMiriam Makeba
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