In McCarter Theater’s ‘Dreaming Zenzile’, An Accomplished Alumna’s Dream Comes True

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In 2012, when Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa was a sophomore at Princeton, she attended a McCarter Theater Center performance of “The Convert.” A native of Zimbabwe, she was delighted to see this new job by Zimbabwean playwright Danai Gurira, which premiered while Gurira was a Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts in Princeton. As Tawengwa, an aspiring songwriter and singer, watched the performance, she wished that one day she would make her own McCarter stage debut.

Ten years later, Tawengwa got his wish – in an unexpected way. After graduating from Princeton in 2014, with a concentration in Music Performance and certificates in Vocal Performance and French, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. When McCarter planned to stage the musical “Dreaming Zenzile” in its 2021-22 theatrical season, Tawengwa was asked to dub the female roles in the four-person set, a natural fit since Tawengwa had been part of the original production at The Théâtre de repertoire de Saint-Louis in 2019. When one of McCarter’s cast was injured just days after the opening, Tawengwa stepped into his role as part of the Sangoma Choir January 27 – realizing his dream. She is also a Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center this academic year.

“Dreaming Zenzile,” based on the life of legendary South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, takes place at Makeba’s final concert in Castel Voltumo, Italy, November 9, 2008. As she wows the crowd with her extraordinary repertoire ranging from traditional South African songs to American jazz standards, her ancestors call her – carrying her, through music and the memory of her past, in a spiritual journey of reconciliation.

Below, Tawengwa reflects on the return of live performance, creating new works at Princeton and using her art to restore indigenous cultural knowledge to future generations.

“Dreaming Zenzile”, based on the life of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, takes place during Makeba’s final concert. As she wows the crowd, her ancestors call her – carrying her, through the music and memory of her past, on a spiritual journey of reconciliation.

How is the unexpected opportunity to perform on this show, and at Princeton, particularly meaningful to you?

My journey with “Dreaming Zenzile” began when the work premiered at the Repertory Theater in St. Louis. I played the role of Bongi in Sangoma Chorus, and I was also a dance captain. Unfortunately, production was halted in January 2020 – just a week before opening – due to COVID. When the show returned in August 2021, I was offered my role but had to return to Zimbabwe for personal reasons and missed the show.

But that same month, I was made a Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts, so I knew I would be coming back to Princeton. When the invitation to be part of “Dreaming Zenzile” at McCarter came in November, it was a moment of closure. This opportunity is the manifestation of the desire I expressed in sophomore year, to want to play McCarter one day. It’s incredibly meaningful to be on stage every night and to think that there was a time when I was sitting in the audience at the same theater, wishing I was on stage.

The show brings to life Makeba’s journey from South Africa to the United States and how it opened up a new world for him as an artist. How does his journey resonate with your own experience of leaving Zimbabwe and the discoveries you made at Princeton?

Miriam Makeba has led a meaningful life. She left her home and was exiled for most of her life because she spoke the truth. His journey touched me on several levels. I left Zimbabwe at a time of economic collapse. Princeton was a great place to find a sense of home, but sometimes I felt like an exile. I left home because I had to and because I wanted. The sensations are complex.

I also feel that I lead a meaningful life here. I am committed to speaking the truth through my scholarship, my creativity and my leadership.

In the series, one of the characters says to Makeba: “Use your voice to speak the truth”. As a Hodder Fellow this year, and beyond that, how do you use your voice to speak the truth?

In 2020, I wrote an article titled “Cultural Vampires: White Exploitation of Zimbabwean Mbira Music”. It describes how our indigenous Zimbabwean cultures have been attacked over the past 600 years by European colonial forces and Christian missionary proselytizing and how our culture carriers are being exploited. This systemic theft has caused a lack of knowledge that has affected generations of Zimbabweans.

Educational institutions have a vital role to play in combating the theft of indigenous knowledge. As a Hodder Fellow, I shed light on this path by adapting “Cultural Vampires” into a self-theoretical piece in comic book form. I also compose “Mudzimu Dzoka”, a biomythographic performance detailing my reincarnation of ancestral Zimbabwean practices as a panacea for colonial disembodiment.

Access to and knowledge of your cultural heritage is a human right. I hope to ensure that present and future generations of Zimbabweans know and benefit from the wealth of our indigenous knowledge.

What does Makeba’s story tell us about transcending struggle and loss and embracing joy and hope about what’s important right now?

Miriam Makeba’s story resonates deeply during this pandemic where there has been so much loss around the world. Frankly, I am grateful for every day that I wake up healthy and hear that all my loved ones are healthy. Gratitude for the presence of love, kindness, justice, health and community is what I hold as a gift right now.

On the show, Makeba says, “The spirits of our ancestors are still present.” How is your own profession founded by the ancestors of your family?

My ancestors guide everything I am and do. In our indigenous Chivanhu belief, the ancestors ask on our behalf from Musikavanhu – the Creator – so that everything goes well for us. My grandmother was a Svikiro, a medium, and my great-grandmother was a N’anga, a healer. All of this energy lives in my lineage, and I channel this ancestral spiritual power daily into my craft.

Learn more about Tawengwa and ‘Dreaming Zenzile’

Tawengwa is also the founder/musical director of the pan-african ensemble the Mushandirapamwe singers and Founder/CEO of Zimbabwe KIDS Camp, dedicated to preserving indigenous Madzimbabwe cultural knowledge through creative arts education. Watch a video function about Tawengwa’s journey as a composer and musical artist at Princeton, produced when she was a junior.

In Besides Tawengwa, three key members of the creative team are Princeton alumni: Lileana Blain-Cruz (2006, director), abigail jean baptiste (2018, associate director) and Talvin Wilks (1985, playwright). Developed, in part, at the Sundance Theater Lab, “Dreaming Zenzile” is a co-production of Octopus Theatricals, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, New York Theater Workshop, Arts Emerson, Apollo Theater and National Black Theater. After the McCarter run, the show moves to Boston and New York.

“Dreaming Zenzile” runs until Sunday, February 13. To buy tickets: www.mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787. McCarter COVID-19 Policies here. Princeton University students can attend the production free of charge with University tickets Passport to the arts program (limit of two tickets per person). Use promotional code: PUTIGER. Princeton University students can also purchase additional $25 tickets (including fees) for this production using the code PUSTUTIX (Limit of two tickets.) All tickets must be reserved online and picked up at the box office with a valid PU student card.

At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 26, Tawengwa will perform a short set in concert with the Princeton University Glee Club, Princeton University Chamber Choir, Early Music Princeton, and PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra). In the fall of 2022, COVID-19 protocol permitting, the Mushandirapamwe Singers will perform on campus with the Glee Club.

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