Fisher Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; February 21, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Benjamin Sands as Yauna in ‘The Legend of Yauna'. Photo © Margaret Takyar

Benjamin Sands as Yauna in ‘The Legend of Yauna’.
Photo © Margaret Takyar

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.

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, awesome African based music and dance, and the performances by its talented and inspiring multi-racial cast. 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), “Yauna” features Afro-Euro singer Marie Daulne (aka ‘Zap Moma’), plus a talented cast of eleven performers, six young dancer/actors, and an instrumental group of seven (including Mr. Berry) who double as stage performers when they’re not playing ‘non-traditional’ African instruments. Through it all, there is an evening-long concert of African music and dance that would be worth seeing even if there wasn’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.

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.  On the way, he meets his wife, has a family, and grows comfortable, but loses it all to feelings of entitlement and superiority (hubris).  Self-chastised, he then searches for his family (as well as his father), encountering 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, he is reunited with what remains of his family older and wiser, having unified the elemental tribes in the process by bringing them together in friendship. 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 and who embellish the narrative and give voice to certain specific characters. Consequently, although the music and dance emanate from the stage (the musicians are located in an enclave upstage left), it feels bigger than that.

Marie Daulne (‘Zap Moma’) as the Black Panther Queen in ‘The Legend of Yauna’. Photo © Margaret Takyar

Marie Daulne (‘Zap Moma’) as the Black Panther Queen in ‘The Legend of Yauna’.
Photo © Margaret Takyar

Although “The Legend of Yauna” is a collaborative effort, the impetus for the piece came from Mr. Berry. In the program notes, he writes that the piece is intended to honor the 30 years that he spent in Africa (primarily in Zimbabwe), his adoptive family, European ancestry, and 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 traced 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 Mr. Berry. 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, and the dances by Ms. Garcia give it physical form. But although the music is primarily percussive and the dances primarily high-energy and 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 is top notch, with an abundant sense of humor as well as a zinger thrown in every once in a while 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.

‘The Legend of Yauna’.  Photo © Margaret Takyar

‘The Legend of Yauna’.
Photo © Margaret Takyar

As Yauna, Benjamin Sands acts the narrative with great skill by not embellishing it beyond wordlessly delivering the message with clarity and knowing innocence.  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 and solid as a rock. 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 certain artistic renderings of Jesus.

The central figures in the story are equally excellent, if time-limited, characterizations. As the Black Panther Queen, the one who propels the action toward its conclusion, Ms. Daulne was an African Athena, the supreme goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, and heroic endeavor (among other things). Although she sang only one song, limiting her role in this way served to strengthen its impact. 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, part Witch Doctor 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. And the musicians/singers were at least equal stars in this production.

“The Legend of Yauna” invites comparisons to familiar storytelling theater, primarily (but not exclusively) aimed at children, that bring world folktales to life, 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, 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.