.A Goddess Is Born: Berkeley Rep stages musical inspired by African myth

A goddess’s birth can be a long process—but her emergence is glorious.

Director/creator Saheem Ali, playwright Jocelyn Bioh and composer Michael Thurber have been midwifing the world-premiere musical Goddess, opening at Berkeley Rep Aug. 14, for years. The piece has gone through multiple iterations and four postponements, and is now ready to stride exuberantly onto the stage.

Kenyan-born Ali moved to the United States as a boy and only read about the African myth of Marimba while in high school. According to this myth, which has mostly been handed down orally in multiple African cultures, goddess Marimba was cursed by another goddess—in some versions, her own mother—and told her husband would die within a few months of her wedding day, which indeed happened. But Marimba used her heartbreak to create both beautiful songs and a number of instruments, including the one named for her.

“I dreamed of turning this story into a musical,” Ali said, “setting it in the contemporary world and fleshing out the rest of the story.” Now, in collaboration with the same team that created New York’s Free Shakespeare in the Park’s all-Black production of Merry Wives, the dream is being realized.

There are similarities between imagining a piece like Merry Wives and creating a new musical, Ali pointed out. Shakespeare’s language is very musical and full of rhythms. “You create dynamic elements … orchestrating how they float in and out,” he said.

In Ali, Bioh and Thurber’s updated Marimba story, a mysterious singer arrives at Moto Moto, a steamy Afro-jazz club in Mombasa, Kenya. According to the Berkeley Rep description, “She casts an entrancing spell on everyone, including a young man who has returned home from studying in America. Will the big plans for his life—stepping into a political legacy and marrying his fiancée—be upended?”

Ali, the associate artistic director/resident director of New York City’s Public Theater, was delighted to work again with Bioh and Thurber. “[Bioh] is an incredible writer. We are both African … she sees the world the way I do … we create the same kind of energy,” he said. About Thurber, he noted, “Michael is one of my closest friends. He’s an extraordinary musician. He is a white boy from Michigan who is able to write this beautiful music that takes me home.”

The trio’s long association enables them to “get to the heart of it” together, said Ali. They trust each other’s sensibilities, and offer feedback on all aspects of the show. Musical theater, he said, is the most collaborative art there is, and their ability to trust and take feedback from each other has been essential to the development of Goddess.

Award-winnning playwright Bioh (School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play) described her initial involvement with the musical. Ali had enjoyed another project of hers, the play Nollywood Dreams, and in 2014, they worked together in a musical-theater workshop. “I knew he had been working on Goddess,” she said, “and now it was going in a different direction.” Bioh, who is Ghanian-American, had never heard of the myth of Marimba, and, as she pointed out, the written myth is “only a paragraph long.” So, as a writer, this was an opportunity to create a completely original story, one that communicated a different understanding of everyday African life and culture.

Although a book of the musical had been constructed before she came on board, she started from scratch. It was a question of “every single day, let’s figure this out.” There were workshops where actors were simply reading the book and the lyrics. “We spent two years working on the story,” she said, adding that the close collaboration among the three creative forces “informed the songs [and made them] seamless song-to-story.”

Michael Thurber’s international debut was with his score for Antony and Cleopatra, a co-production between The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Public Theater. His journey with the creative team started in 2009. He wrote what became the first draft of Goddess’s opening number “about 11 years ago.” Like Bioh, he had never heard of the Marimba myth, but was, of course, familiar with the instrument named for her.

The music he’s created for the show combines traditional African rhythms and melodies with R&B and jazz, “which are rooted in the African diaspora,” he said. It’s played on what he describes as a hybrid selection of instruments, including a drum set, electric bass, West African drums and a Kenyan instrument called a nyatiti. “I had no idea it existed,” Thurber said, “but the beauty of it is that the myth describes Marimba creating an instrument out of a gourd and string.” The nyatiti is a five-to-eight-stringed plucked bowl-yoke lute. And, of course, the marimba will be part of the band.

Then there has been the long process of writing and re-writing the show’s songs. “If you include all the rewrites, that would be dozens of songs—even since we’ve been here in Berkeley.” He acknowledges that, sometimes, it can be difficult to discard music or lyrics that initially seemed so perfect. “The longer you stay in [this] job, the more you realize everything has to be in service to the story,” he said. And a composer learns to trust that “you will always have another good idea.” In inventing music and lyrics for a new musical, he is a writer, but also a designer—the person designing the soundscape for the show.

Ali also praised the contributions of choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, whose work has been presented by the Ailey II dance company and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and who has choreographed for Beyoncé and Savion Glover. Goddess has also benefited from additional material by playwright Mkhululi Z. Mabija.

The various versions of Goddess have also included many different cast members, some of whom have made the whole journey and others who are brand-new to the Berkeley production. What has emerged is a “really incredible company of actors,” Bioh said. From the beginning, the creative team looked for performers who had nontraditional musical theater voices. She personally recruited Amber Iman, who plays Nadira—“the Goddess”—since she had worked with Iman in previous productions. Actors needed to be able to move expressively, but did not necessarily need classical dance backgrounds. And they needed to hear and love the rhythms and subtexts of the words.

Thurber’s favorite part of the rehearsal process is the exploration that occurs with the cast. “The music director gets the actual notes down,” he said, “from there is where I come in.” Cast members, who are the ones telling the story, can see things a composer can’t see, he said. Goddess is lucky to have a cast “that has opened up a whole new round of discoveries.”

In Goddess, the team believes, audience members—even those not fans of traditional musical theater—will discover one of the greatest gifts live theater can provide: empathy.

“This is an audacious show, set in a specific region and populated by beautiful Black people,” Bioh said. “But [the audience] will be both entertained and moved by the story.”

“[First], people will see how incredibly dynamic the show is,” Thurber said. Then, they will relate to the themes: What would you do for love? Love versus fate? How do you make crucial decisions? “There are few shows that have this range of emotion, from humor to really scary moments,” he said.

Ali believes audiences will be transported to another time and place, and there, they will experience a “deep emotional component, that will cause them to reflect on their own lives.”

After the Berkeley Rep production closes, the plan is for Goddess to go on to an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., for a possible New York run. “We would love to go to Broadway,” Bioh said, while acknowledging that that decision doesn’t rest with the creative team. “We have had such a hard time [because of the pandemic] with theater returning,” she said. But she has every hope that East Bay audiences will turn out to support a new, inventive, diverse work.

Those interested in reading further about the myth of Marimba can look up the books of Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. In his book Indaba My Children: African Folktales, he writes that she was the mother of the Akamba people at the time when they were getting to know their Maasai neighbors. According to the writer, Marimba’s story cites her as creating the forerunners of not only the nyatiti and marimba, but also the ngoma (drum), kalimba (lamellophone), makweyana (musical bow) and the mukimbe (hand xylophone).

‘Goddess’ plays Aug. 14 thru Sept. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre). Post-show discussions Sept. 1, 13, 23. 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. 510.647.2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

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