There was something so powerful about the quality and quantity of talent that entered the Washington production of this sprawling, multilingual African musical drama, “Havana.”
In South Africa, as two actresses crisscrossed the stage in a dance duet to a celebratory song called “Mumbulele,” it was the realization of the musical form that has propelled this production for some 30 years in Africa, with tweaks along the way. In those 30 years, “Havana” has taken dancers and singers to countries including Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, London, Berlin, Paris, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Lagos, New York, Ottawa, Cape Town, Togo, Tshwane, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Cape Town, Nairobi, Nairobi and Johannesburg, where it ran in the capital city. From the beginning, audiences have sat transfixed.
And so it is with “Havana,” a feast of music and dance, razzle-dazzle and compassion, a soufflé-white chocolate cake frittered with salty tomato-based sauce, and all around a killer soundtrack that is African in origin. We are talking snatches of “Sweet Serengeti,” “African Beatles,” “Night Mums,” “Reset,” “The Nights of Beverly Hills,” “Moscow Rock,” “Lil Can Teach You How to Love,” “Yak for Papa,” “Zaireango,” “Man from Me,” “His Time,” “Doomsday,” “The Battle of Abel,” “Musical Love.” The list goes on.
There was only one place in town, however, in which the diversity was magnified to such a degree that one was ready to faint.
Samuel Adewunmi, who had filled up both proscenium and bleachers with the exhausting speed of jet fuel, stepped off the stage in a flattoned black uniform – khaki pants, a white T-shirt bearing a “BBC” logo – and stopped a few feet from me, his gaze fixed on mine. We shook hands. “Oh, thank you, my friend,” he said. “I am so honored to be here in a local theater for a show with a cast 95 percent Black.”
Then, he looked as focused as a catwalk. “I don’t think you’d expect to see that on a BBC, would you?”
More than four hours into “Havana,” Adewunmi’s dazzling final performance, his role as the cross-pollinating family patriarch, the more than 400-year-old Cornelius, was still being cast. Yet, his legacy had only begun: Rather than succumb to exhaustion and his passion for the show, he was hungry for more. But he also left the stage promising to work with another troupe to present a “Havana” touring in Europe and Africa.
The actors whose final roles Adewunmi played carried on with compassion for his character. Even the diva characters had a message. There was one woman on stage who dedicated herself to “the privileged class,” delivering text from The Women’s March on Washington: “Our ambitions may be narrower than yours, our goals less lofty than yours, our vision less long term than yours.”