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Mindy Aloff
BAM Fisher
United States
New York City
New York
Brooklyn, NY

Commentary: The Legend of Yauna

by Mindy Aloff
February 21, 2014
BAM Fisher
321 Ashland Place
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4100
February 21 and 22, 2014
Shumba Records, producer
Sometimes, the most earnestly inspired and well-intended production opens before it is ready. That was the case with The Legend of Yauna, an elaborately conceived, though incompletely realized, musical-and-choreographic retelling of an Odyssey-like story about the harrowing adventures endured by a mythic king of Africa (Benjamin Sands) who tries to find his way home to his family. In a program note, Chris Berry, the author of the narrator's script and composer of the score (as well the performer of Yauna's half-human, half-dolphin father), makes it clear that the idea for the two-hour show erupted from his synthesis of personal memories from 30 years in Africa, largely in Zimbabwe; of his own foster father, a master drummer and dancer from Congo; and of his own Kentucky Appalachian grandmother, a master storyteller. "Although none of the compositions in Yauna are traditional rhythms or songs that can be traced to a particular culture, each piece is an ode to the genius of African music," he adds. I'm sorry to say that this lack of felt authenticity makes the music of the show's current iteration sound generic, and the same is true for the visual effect of the choreography, by director Maija Garcia, who worked with Bill T. Jones on the Broadway show FELA! Anyone who attends BAM's yearly festival of African dancing—by troupes from the U.S. and abroad—is not likely to be wowed here, although one of the dancers, Jerijah West— clearly a virtuoso of the stingingly fast rhythms of dances associated with Western Africa—is given occasional moments to unleash his considerable, specific pure dance abilities. (He spends more of his stage time rather tamely embodying the characters Crocodile and Fox Man.)

Mr. Berry goes on in his note to speak of the many things he wants to achieve with this show: these range from his personal understanding of his European roots to a message for world peace and universal freedom. Indeed, the show carries so many extra-theatrical burdens that the actual identity of it as something for audiences to see and hear between 8 and 10 p.m. gets lost. The fine musicians, drummers mostly, are playing their palms blue; however, Mr. Berry's aim is for us to go out whistling not their music but rather his philosophical interpretation that the music embodies.

Immediately upon the conclusion of the bows, Mr. Berry and Ms Garcia came on stage with chairs to tell the paying audience, abashedly, that this was, in fact, a workshop performance with "a long way to go," to apologize for asking the audience to buy tickets to it at this point, and to ask for suggestions. Here are mine:

- Forget the eternal pieties and start paying more attention to the prowess of the performers in front of you. Showcase them in what they do well rather than be so concerned about nailing the narrative detail that you forget we're watching dancers and musicians, not a real white rhino jumping through fire.

- If the story is going to be narrated by one person, if you can't get James Earl Jones or someone with a similarly magnetic voice, keep the narration short.

- When you've got a big star—and Yauna's headliner, the singer and jaw-droppingly long-legged and beautiful stage goddess Marie Daulne aka Zap Mama, playing the Black Panther Queen in a velour catsuit and five-inch stilettos, is a big star in every sense—check the sound system from all parts of the theater to be sure that her singing isn't drowned out by her instrumental accompaniment (as it was where I was sitting, high up on the audience left side). Given Ms Daulne's program bio ("more than a singer, she is a sonic stylist, who alternates between storytelling and creative vocal expression"), our inability to hear her diction and tone was a special disappointment.

- When the audience is expected to work—as, here, to study a workshop production and give particular, detailed advice and feedback—don't ask them to buy tickets thinking they'll see a finished and frozen production. And don't be misleading: Put the fact that it's a workshop production in the press release.

- Finally, if you're planning to sell examples of a musical instrument featured in the show as souvenirs—such as, in this instance, the African thumb piano or kalimba, which Yauna plays to make the Black Panther Queen sing—don't line up the instruments on a table in the lobby next to a sign that reads something on the order of "Instruments for sale" and then leave the table entirely unattended at the start of the performance, at intermission, and at the end, thereby requiring the ushers and ticket takers to do double duty as security guards. It's not fair to them. And for someone—me, for instance—who was ready to purchase one, it's very frustrating.

Photo © & courtesy of Margret Takyar

Photo © & courtesy of Margret Takyar

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