Nehanda was unique performance with all the right elements, but somehow in this setting and format it didn’t hit quite right. Nehanda was brought to the Paramount Theatre this week by some extremely talented singers, percussionist and dancers. The audience entered the theatre with performers already on stage and filling the room with the meditative sound of various shaken percussive instruments creating an almost rainstorm like sound. The performers stood in a circle on a stage lit by lanterns strung above. It felt like entering a community space like a park gathering, a neighborhood get together, or an open drum circle. I have participated in drum circles on Mount Royal in Montreal. I have been to “fêtes du printemps” in France which are community celebrations of spring. I have danced in improv contact jams. This kind of human energy and connection is something that Nehanda seemed to promise from the set to the gathering of the artists on stage looking inward to the circle. The problem is that a theatre creates a different rapport between leaders/performance members and audience members than those other settings do.
The voices were strong and beautiful so much so that when they first sang out in a call and response-like chant, despite not knowing what the words were saying, my eyes started tearing up. Something about the rawness of the call and the warmth of the response overtook me. This type of performance is one that you can only fully experience and enjoy if you let your body become swept up in the music and movement and let your mind go a little bit. If you are trying to find the story and analyze what you are seeing in front of you, you will quickly lose patience and in fact many audience members did and left mid-show. If you can let the music vibrate through you, you will have a different experience. Even with that sort of letting go, Nehanda despite having beautiful harmonies, strength personified in movement, and story telling, didn’t all come together.
I think Nehanda would have been more effective and reached more people in an outdoor setting, a town square, a city center, or a park. I would have loved to see it performed in Boston’s City Hall Plaza, or at the Seaport out front by the ICA. Nehanda would have reached so many more people and drawn them in instead of having worn them down, which was the effect in the theatre. The show had some audience members sit on stage, which perhaps helped those audience members have the full experience, but as an audience member sitting not too far away in the theatre, that slight separation made a big difference.
Nehanda is a legend about a spirit of the Shona people who are native to Zimbabwe and central Mozambique. While the structure of Nehanda is not one of story telling, so you don’t learn much about the 1896 case which informed the performance, you do get a sense of protest and the two huge Union Jack flags that drape the ceiling above the audience speaks volumes. The voices were strong in a call and response type chant for the first part of the show. The harmonies created were beautiful but they seemed to go on longer than the audience had attention for. Again, in an open space performance with audience members walking closer into the circle and through the performance I think Nehanda could have sustained the experience longer and sucked people in more effectively. The second part of the show included an operatic style of singing that was both haunting and powerful. If you were willing to shut out the world and let the music carry you, you could get to a state of total immersion, but that is a lot to ask of an audience in that setting. The theatre typically requires more of the performers and less of the audience members for it to be successful.
Nehanda plays at Emerson’s Paramount Center through Sunday, May 21st. Tickets are available at ArtsEmerson or by calling 617-824-8400.