Within the dimness, one thing is spinning. Because the lights slowly rise, that one thing seems to be a person whirling a ropelike tube over his head like a lasso, a tube that makes a sound like singing. Because the stage grows brighter, we see that the person is surrounded by 4 vocalists. It’s their music we’re listening to, and it’s superb.
This preliminary play of picture and sound introduces the strengths and half-realized potential of “Broken Chord,” a South African manufacturing that had its United States premiere on the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday. The person is the choreographer Gregory Maqoma, who created the work with the composer Thuthuka Sibisi. The purpose is historic resurrection and redress.
“Damaged Chord” is concerning the African Choir, a long-forgotten group of missionary-educated South African singers who toured England and North America within the Eighteen Nineties, encountering racism and different pernicious colonial attitudes. They’re embodied by Maqoma — who has mentioned that is his remaining manufacturing as a performer — and an impressive quartet of South African vocalists. We watch them on their journey, conjuring the invisible boat with motion and their pleasure with bouncy music and a quick-footed advance. We see their pleasure and hope on the sight of London. After which the difficulty begins.
Wherever “Damaged Chord” excursions, it engages an area choir — the Choir of Trinity Wall Avenue right here in New York. These singers are the villains, and the butt of the jokes. This casting thought, economical for touring, additionally cleverly recreates an encounter between African artists and the West. Nevertheless it’s a crudely rendered collision.
The white choir, massing menacingly across the Africans, sings some Handel and “God Save the Queen,” but additionally “Why are you right here?” and “Go dwelling!” and “You aren’t like us!” This lack of subtlety is echoed in textual content spoken by the African performers: “You assume I’m solely right here to be a superb Black, simply to sing for you, however in fact I’m right here to disrupt and dismantle.”
That line earned whoops of approval on Thursday night time. The manufacturing is righteous in its anger towards — as Maqoma explains in a cri de coeur speech — a supposed conflict of cultures wherein one facet has all the ability. However “Damaged Chord” makes the British one-dimensional and thus slightly absurd, sacrificing each historic complexity and theatrical affect.
The present is healthier at speaking the Africans’ ache and pathos. Maqoma acts all through like a human antenna, receiving vibrations and translating them into serpentine or avian movement, spins, rhythmic stomping, Michael Jackson poses and, climactically, a fevered shaking. Usually, his improvised-looking responses work towards or on high of a musical basis offered by everybody else. Generally he idles, generally he makes every thing take off.
The present is impressionistic and episodic. An African rendition of the Lord’s Prayer disintegrates into simian grunting, a imaginative and prescient by racist eyes. Maqoma speaks of questioning “the smiling Gospel.” He trades his swinging tube for a smoking censer. He and the quartet make a rhythmic music and dance out of kneading flour. They ripple their palms like hearth in shafts of sunshine. And infrequently a easy line of textual content cuts by: “I need to go dwelling.”
Close to the tip, the white choir will get a phrase in, with the Purcell aria “Dido’s Lament”: “Keep in mind me however neglect my destiny.” However the African response, at first mushy and unhappy after which intensely forceful, within the alternately heartbreaking and invigorating soprano of Nokuthula Magubane, is “They shall not change.” The decision, one hopes, is overly pessimistic. The sound of the voices is plain.
Via Saturday on the Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.