“The Legend of Yauna”
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York
February 21, 2014
-- by Jerry Hochman
In his seminal 1949 book “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” as well as in his groundbreaking televised series of interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in 1988 collectively called “The Power of Myth,” Joseph Campbell spoke of the common elemental thread among all cultures – the ‘monomyth’ (universal myth) – a transcendent story that, in simplistic terms, tells of the suffering and struggles of a single heroic figure who ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder…and who comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow, or having already bestowed, benefits on his fellow man. This myth, which is tailored to (because it arises from) the society in which the myth – a folk/tribal tale – is told, usually follows one or more of three essential stages: the ‘departure’ or ‘separation’ (the ‘call’ or ‘calling’; the ‘quest’); the ‘initiation’ (adventures; tasks; trials and tribulations, including receiving supernatural aid to overcome them); and the ‘return’ (the return home transformed by the experience and/or with the ability to transform society). Commonly known ‘heroes’ and their ‘myths’ that Campbell or others conclude fit the Campbell monomyth theory include Odysseus, Hercules, Osiris, Prometheus, Buddha, Christ, Moses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Harry Potter.
I thought of Professor Campbell’s observations as I watched “The Legend of Yauna” unfold during Friday’s world premiere performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fisher Theater. Though there are idiosyncrasies that place ‘Yauna’ firmly within its own African cultural mask, its story is a universal one, one that relates a heroic and spiritual quest that ultimately benefits the whole of society. But the universality of its story is only part of its appeal – the production both exemplifies Campbell’s archetypal hero/creation theory and expands on it with its superb libretto, truly awesome African based music and dance, and the performances by its talented and inspiring multi-racial cast. In a word, even in its current small scale, it’s fabulous.
Created by an artistic team consisting of Maija Garcia (direction and choreography), who co-choreographed the Broadway musical "FELA," and Grammy award-winning composer and director Chris Berry (music and story), and featuring Afro-Euro singer Marie Daulne (aka 'Zap Moma') and a talented cast of thousands – actually, eleven performers in addition to Ms. Daulne, Mr. Berry, and six young dancer/actors, plus an instrumental group of seven (including Mr. Berry), who double as stage performers when they’re not playing an ensemble of drums, the mbira, and other ‘non-traditional’ African instruments, ‘Yauna’ grabs, gently, from the first minute and doesn’t let go. Through it all, there is an evening-long concert of African music and dance that would be worth seeing even if there weren’t a story that inspired it (and was inspired by it). It’s a joyously non-self-conscious production. By that I mean that it’s not preachy, or out to prove a point, or my-culture-is-better-than-your-culture. On the contrary, its message – simplistic though it may sound but delivered powerfully and endearingly – is that we are one. Indeed, in the program notes Mr. Berry writes that the message of the story is that humanity will have to learn to unify and share our 'medicines' if we hope to survive.
The story told is not specifically described in the notes. Essentially, Yauna (which means ‘stands in front of sword’) commences a search to find his father, encounters strange and wondrous people and events on the way – including meeting his wife and having a family and losing it all over his feeling of entitlement and superiority. He then searches for his family, encountering more strange and wondrous people and events, as he overcomes fear, answers riddles, and dances and sings with the tribal people and extraordinary characters he meets along the way. Eventually, Yauna returns to his family older and wiser and unites the elemental tribes by bringing them together in friendship rather than violence. Visually, the story is told in a continuous series of vignettes, with action taking place primarily on stage, but also in all corners of the theater. For example, except when Ms. Daulne appears, the vocalization comes not from the actors on stage, but from the offstage (but visible) narrator and an ever-changing chorus of performers who populate ‘balcony’ areas above and to the sides of the stage – when they’re not performing on stage – and who embellish the narrative and give voice certain specific characters. And although the music and dance emanate from the stage (the musicians are located in an enclave upstage left, but they too morph from being musicians to being actors in the performance).
“The Legend of Yauna” is a collaborative effort, but the impetus for the piece came from Mr. Berry. In the program notes, Mr. Berry writes that the piece is intended to honor the 30 years that he spent in Africa (primarily in Zimbabwe) and his adoptive family, his own European ancestry, and his belief that one of his Ancient Ancestors was ‘Yauna’. And he adds that none of the compositions in 'Yauna' are traditional rhythms or songs that can be raced to a particular culture - rather, the words and names in the story are from a mythology called Banakuma, which says that there was a time 12,000 years ago when the four 'seed' tribes of the human race (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air) spoke one language. Regardless of the motivation, or perhaps because of it, as a whole 'Yauna' is a reflection of, and tribute to, Mr. Berry – not just to his background, but to his talent. His function during the presentation is primarily as a musician and singer, but he also portrays Yauna’s father, a character that has a zen-like quality (when he’s not drumming or singing), plays the mbira (any relationship to Apollo and his lyre or David and his harp is purely coincidental) and seems, appropriately, to quietly (and at times not so quietly) orchestrate the action.
The music that Mr. Berry created (and which, together with the other musicians, he recreates during the performance) flows through the piece and gives it life (the piece is subtitled ‘Music changes everything’), and the dances by Ms. Garcia give it physical form. But although the music is primarily percussive and the dances primarily high-energy/tribal, there’s no sense of repetitious overkill. With each change of focus, the dances and music are sufficiently different to maintain a high level of audience interest. That the company as a whole seems to be having a great time telling this story and communicating the joy that is a component of it is a bonus. It’s difficult to watch ‘Yauna’ without tapping your feet and smiling.
And it’s impossible to watch ‘Yauna’ without listening to the narrative that is as constant throughout as the music. The libretto isn’t specifically credited (Mr. Berry is credited with the ‘story’), but I assume it’s primarily a product of Mr. Berry’s imagination sparked by the underlying myth, and with input received from other artistic collaborators. However it came to be, it’s top notch, with an abundant sense of humor as well as a zinger thrown in every once in awhile to take the story out of its African roots and give it more universal and contemporary appeal. [For example, ‘What does a woman want?’ is a riddle that Yauna must answer.] And the quality of this libretto is matched by its delivery, primarily by Jason B. Lucas, one of the musicians, whose voice is smooth and syrupy as honey.
As Yauna, Benjamin Sands is superb. Like everyone else in the production, Mr. Sands acts the narrative with great skill. But he’s different from the others. His character is the unifier, the one who ‘stands in front of swords’. As such, Mr. Sands characterization is part everyman (African or not) and part sacred vessel. Indeed, as the story progresses, images are projected onto the back of the stage intended to amplify Yauna’s persona and, like any legendary figure, make him appear larger than life. These projected images (the artwork was created by Leif Wold) evoke African images, as well also Native American, South American, and Middle Eastern images. They also clearly, and I believe intentionally, reference artistic renderings of Jesus.
The central figures in the story are equally superb characterizations. As the Black Panther Queen, the one who propels the action toward its conclusion, Ms. Daulne is an African Athena, the supreme goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, and heroic endeavor (among other things). She dominated the stage and the air around it during her brief appearance, with a voice like quivering thunder delivering electrically charged zaps of energy (perhaps that’s how she got her moniker ‘zap moma’). Her song wasn’t so much sung as proclaimed. Each of the other dancer/actors doubled – or tripled – as specifically identified characters as well as part of the ‘chorus’ of performers and vocalists. Gurthusula, the blind seer who is part Teresius, part Medusa, and part Wicked Witch of the West, was played to perfection by Laurie M. Taylor (acting) and Kafi Pierre (vocalization). Jerjah West made a fine Crocodile and Fox Man, and Naoko Arimura danced a gloriously tortured Sah-i-Sah. Mangue Sylla, one of the musicians (and a very large man), played Jakaranda like a dancing and drum-playing tornado. Other actors/characters creatively woven throughout the piece (and their identified characters) included Stephanie Mustglow (‘Water Queen’), Nathan Duszny (‘White Rhino’/’Water Warrier’), Courtney Baron (‘Grandmother Air’), Oscar Trujillo (‘Great White Eagle’, ‘Grandfather Air’), Malin Barr (‘Water Warrier’), Elinor Tollerz Bratteby (‘Water Warrier’), and six engaging young performers: Sekai Berry, Waniso Berry, Cypress Hubbard-Salk, Idigo Hubbard-Salk, Sierra Hubbard-Salk, and Kian Tretout.
At least equal stars in this production are the musicians/singers. In addition to Mr. Berry and Mr. Sylla, they include Maurizio Caparelli, Frankie Malloy IV, Robert Michelin, and Cassie Songstress Zito.
“The Legend of Yauna” invites comparisons to storytelling theater that brought world folktales to life and whose performances transcended local boundaries (including ‘childrens’ theater’ companies like the ‘Shoestring Players’, a company with which I have some familiarity, that evolved from acting classes at Rutgers University and that flourished nationally and internationally in the 1980s and 90s), but it’s more sophisticated than that. It also resembles “The Lion King,” on a much smaller scale (for now) and without the latter’s bells and whistles. But “The Legend of Yauna” stands on its own as entertainment that transcends its boundaries (of both story locale and performing space) and invites its audiences to share in its delights. And most of all, it has its heart in the right place. To my knowledge, additional performances are not presently scheduled (the brief Fisher Theater run ended on Saturday), but I suspect future engagements are contemplated. Assuming that this happens, and whenever this happens, I would encourage readers to see it, with family in tow. Or as Professor Campbell might have said, to follow their bliss.