By Adam Immerwahr, McCarter Theatre Associate Artistic Director
Several years ago, McCarter Theatre developed and produced Danai Gurira’s THE CONVERT, under Emily Mann’s direction, in a production that started with us and moved to Chicago’s Goodman Theater and LA’s Center Theater Group. The play was set in 1895, on the eve of the Shona uprising in the area of Zimbabwe that would eventually become Harare, Zimbabwe. As associate director (and a member of the producing team), I worked closely with Emily and Danai on that production, and I am thrilled to now be in rehearsals as the director of the African premiere of the play, in Harare—with an all Zimbabwean cast and design team.
The production is under the auspices of Almasi Collaborative Arts, a Zimbabwean-American company (co-founded by Danai) dedicated to the professionalization of the Zimbabwean theatrical community through collaborations with professional American artists and organizations. In September, Almasi co-founder Patience Tawengwa came to McCarter to observe Emily Mann in rehearsals for PROOF and to meet with American theater practitioners. Now, I’m in Harare, in rehearsals for this new production, which opens in mid-December before a planned tour throughout Zimbabwe.
It is virtually impossible to adequately describe this experience. There is no better way to experience a culture than to live and work alongside the people who live there. Zimbabwe is an incredibly complex society—with extreme poverty (and therefore rampant crime) and a nascent theatrical community that is both growing and hanging on by its bootstraps. The most alarming lesson I have learned so far in Zimbabwe is how easily things can change. Harare used to have regular electricity, running water everywhere, roads in good repair, public transit, and working currency. Over the last 15-20 years, all of that slowly disappeared, and as the unemployment rate soared over 70% and the currency hyper inflated (costing everyone their life savings), the security gates started going up, the private guards started being hired, etc. Mistrust is everywhere. Sadly, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine it happening in some of the cities of America.
Rehearsals have been extraordinary. Despite the enormous challenges the cast and team face (commutes of 3-4 hours, no running water at home or in rehearsal, language barriers, etc), the company has delved deep into Danai’s exquisite play. For this company, it has a meaning and depth that has resonance to every facet of their lives and their nation’s history, and they are finding thrilling ways to infuse it with the Shona culture that inspired it. As they work to learn and grow, the actors and designers are experiencing a taste of the American rehearsal room—and they are being introduced to “fight calls” (when actors review their fight choreography before rehearsal—a foreign concept here), regularly scheduled rehearsal breaks (we are following American actors’ union breaks), and the expectations for a professional American rehearsal process. I am also teaching acting and coaching the design team, as well as mentoring the stage managers and two trainee directors.
Every part of my time here has been eye-opening and astonishing, but what is most exciting is seeing this play, which McCarter birthed, being brought home to its native country. I can’t wait to see how Zimbabwean audiences respond to it!
The return of tap master Savion Glover to Princeton is definitely something to, well, tap your feet about! Special Programming Director Bill Lockwood talks about this virtuoso’s McCarter debut and why Savion is the “Superman of Tap.”
Savion Glover first appeared on the McCarter stage as a teenager in 1994 when his mentor, the great Gregory Hines (who was McCarter’s Gala artist that year), introduced him as tap’s new young sensation—an understatement if there ever was one!
Few performers in our time, whether musicians or dancers or actors, can truly be said to have singlehandedly re-defined an art form and taken it to new heights in the way Savion has. There are lots of pianists, violinists, ballerinas, and vocalists who have made significant contributions to their fields of artistic expression, but in the art of tap dancing, for almost 20 years there has only been one—Savion Glover. He is the franchise; his name is synonymous with tap, and every time I see him, he brings an added dimension to the art form he has made his own. In his latest creation, STepZ (his best show in years), he bows reverently to the history of tap, but he honors those artists (like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) who were also crowd-pleasing entertainers, in crafting his own version of the “stair dance” that was Robinson’s trademark and later that of the Nicholas Brothers. With the most expensive ankles in the business, Savion Glover at age 39 remains the “Superman of Tap,” so this is your chance to immerse yourself in the art of a genius!
Earlier this fall when our Literary and Education and Engagement staff members were engrossed in reading and researching for The White Snake, a rare book from 1937 (written by Chinese amateur actor and theatergoer Cecilia S. L. Zung) entitled Secrets of the Chinese Drama was a frequent resource. In fact, this book is referenced at various times throughout Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The White Snake!
Following our Dialogue on Drama post-show discussion, our speaker—Rutgers University Chinese cultural historian Dr. Jessey Choo—and her husband (Dr. Lu Yang, also a cultural historian) requested to peruse the book. When they did, they recognized the handwritten inscription and signature of the great Chinese actor Mei Lan-Fang to the author on the inside pages. What a discovery!
And with this incredible find, the book will likely be whisked out of circulation and into preservation at Princeton University’s East Asian Library. Much like White Snake and Greenie coming down from the mountain, you never know what you’ll discover…especially at the theater.