The power of Miriam Makeba’s voice was twofold: She could hold you spellbound with the multifaceted virtuosity of her performances, and she could galvanize you into political action as a living example of commitment to social change.
Both dimensions of Makeba’s voice ring out in “Dreaming Zenzile,” a stirring and altogether outstanding musical portrait of the South African singer-songwriter who fought against apartheid and for civil rights.
Created by and starring the astonishing Somi Kakoma, who goes by Somi, “Dreaming Zenzile” will be presented only through Sunday by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson Paramount Center. It richly deserves to be seen, heard, and felt.
Under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, who was recently at the helm of ArtsEmerson’s “Iphigenia,” Somi throws herself into the role of Makeba so completely that you almost feel as if you’re actually watching the woman nicknamed “Mama Africa.”
The exquisite artistry and sheer vibrancy of Somi and her fellow cast members are even more meaningful because “Dreaming Zenzile” is the first in-person ArtsEmerson production at the Paramount since March 2020, when the pandemic forced the closure of theaters nationwide.
In a way, the jolting news of the Russian military attack on Ukraine also added resonance to Thursday night’s performance of “Dreaming Zenzile.” After all, Makeba was someone who opposed oppression in all its forms. Hours after seeing TV footage of the already-spiraling refugee crisis in Ukraine, it was eerie to hear Somi-as-Makeba say: “Remember the dignity of immigrants and refugees, those who make their homes where they want to — or need to.”
Somi is a jazz vocalist (her album “Holy Room: Live At Alte Oper” earned a Grammy nomination last year) who proves to be an actress of significant depth. Her script indicates she’s a fine writer, although at 2½ hours “Dreaming Zenzile” could be tighter. The performance was extended a bit more Thursday night by a major sound glitch, which the cast responded to with equanimity, continuing to perform until Somi paused and gently asked that the problem be fixed. When the action resumed a few minutes later, actor Aaron Marcellus smoothly reentered his interrupted scene with “As I was saying . . .”
Marcellus is part of a first-rate supporting cast that also includes Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, and Helen Marla White, backed up by a skilled jazz band. Among the roles played by Marcellus is that of Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture, a leader of the Black Power movement whom Makeba married in 1968. Marcellus and Somi possess genuine chemistry, especially when they team up for a duet on Makeba’s “Love Tastes Like Strawberries.”
To frame her story, “Dreaming Zenzile” begins with the concert performance in Italy in November 2008 at which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at age 76. It’s just days after Barack Obama has been elected US president (”It feels so good to have something to hope for,” she says), and Makeba is reluctant to leave this life, believing she still has more to do.
But the spirits of her ancestors appear and urge her to let go, assuring her that the work she has done helps guarantee that the struggle will continue.
From there, Makeba’s life comes back to her in dreamlike fashion. There are scenes from her youth in Prospect Township near Johannesburg, where the warmth of her family and community was chilled by the shadow of apartheid and sudden raids by white police officers. (”Did you know that Black South Africans have been dispossessed of their land for some 350 years?” Makeba says. “How can one NOT be political?”)
After becoming pregnant at 17, Makeba marries the baby’s father, who proves to be brutally abusive. She escapes that marriage and begins to build a career as a singer, receiving a major boost from Harry Belafonte. Her stance against apartheid resulted in three decades as an exile after the South African government revoked her passport. The pain of that separation is evoked in “Dreaming Zenzile” when authorities prevent her from returning home for her mother’s funeral. Her marriage to Carmichael also carried a cost, causing serious damage to her career in the United States.
But this superb musical makes clear that Makeba was willing to pay that price to meet what she describes in “Dreaming Zenzile” as the obligation to “lift our voices to speak truth to power.” And it is equally clear that when Makeba asks herself at one point “Am I enough?,” the only possible answer is yes.
Written by Somi Kakoma. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Musical direction, Hervé Samb. Choreography, Marjani Forte-Saunders. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Feb. 27. Tickets $25-$90. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org