As part of the Crossroads Theater Company’s celebration of its 30th anniversary, the theater is offering “Sheila’s Day: A South African Journey,” a piece that is celebrating its own 20th anniversary. “Sheila’s Day,” the work of Duma Ndlovu and Mbongeni Ngema, was first developed in 1989 at Crossroads. The New Brunswick performances were followed by ones in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Toronto, ending with a run in South Africa. This current production reversed the procedure, opening with performances in Johannesburg this March, followed by the current run through Sunday, May 1, with the same cast, in New Brunswick. Mbongeni Ngema has been involved in the staging, with Ricardo Kahn acting as director.
In the original production the cast came from South Africa; in this production, the singers, with one partial exception are American. That exception is music director Thuli Dumakude, who was originally from South Africa. She certainly deserves credit for the tightness of the performance. The cast consists of eight women, who, without ever changing their basic costume, take on a variety of characters. Stories of apartheid in South Africa, in particular the troubles in Soweto, are interwoven with tales from Alabama and the Montgomery bus boycott. The action takes place after the worst of these problems has been solved, and the women are telling each other the stories as they revel in the fact that their world has changed so much. This means most of the songs are celebratory.
The first number feels something like an overture as the singers accompany themselves on African drums, rattles, a triangle, and a tambourine. After that, except for hand clapping and occasional foot stomping, the singing is entirely a capella. Some of the stories are spoken, some sung. The range of the numbers is wide, from solos to small groups to the entire cast. The music comes from both the United States and South Africa, from Zulu chant and traditional African songs to protest songs to American blues and gospel songs.
The cast members are dressed almost identically, in black tights and long-sleeved tops covered by a cotton print wrap that falls on each of them differently, with white sneakers on their feet and matching cotton print turbans on their heads. They play multiple roles from jailer to wealthy householder to ordinary citizen, although most of the time they represent household workers (household workers are called Sheilas, hence the title). They occasionally remove their hats when they are playing the part of a prison guard, a state official, a haughty housewife — in other words, someone other than a household worker. The piece runs for about 90 minutes without intermission.
It may seem surprising considering the grim nature of the stories that inspired “Sheila’s Day,” but the mood of the piece is positive. The songs may have grown out of terrible situations, but things have changed, and the result is upbeat. The ensemble singing is first rate, and judging by audience reaction on opening night, it looks as if Crossroads will end its anniversary season with a big hit.
Crossroads’ co-founder and current artistic director, Ricardo Khan, spoke briefly before the opening-night performance. His optimistic message was that the theater has survived its rocky recent past and that next season Crossroads will present four productions, each with a three-week run. The repertory for this year’s “legacy season” was apparently chosen as a kind of celebration of survival, for the three shows done this year were all shows that had been done before, each of which brought something special to the theater. In addition to “Sheila’s Day,” the 2008-’09 season included “The Colored Museum,” from the 1986 season, which in the theater’s words was “the show that took Crossroads to PBS,” and “It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues,” from the 1998 season, “the show that took Crossroads to Broadway.” “Sheila’s Day” is identified as “the show that took Crossroads international.”
Sheila’s Day, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 3. Musical drama is a timeless history of racial oppression in the U.S. and South Africa. $45. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadsnb.com.