In 1995, a bus crash outside Kokstad, South Africa, left 12 schoolboys dead. Wild rumors swirled: the crash was caused by witches, the deceased made zombie slaves. In the weeks that followed, mobs executed two elderly women while local sangomas (traditional Xhosa shamans) tried to resurrect the boys.
Such is the true story behind Ipi Zombi?, Brett Bailey’s exploration of the South African psyche. This month, Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences will present six performances in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
Shows begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27 and 28; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29. Shows continue the following weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3 and 4; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5. (Post-show discussions with members of the cast and production staff will follow each of the Saturday performances.)
Tickets are $15 — $9 for students, senior citizens and Washington University faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets. The Hotchner Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. Performances are co-sponsored by the African & African-American Studies Program in Arts & Sciences. For more information, call (314) 935-6543.
Ipi Zombi? — the title translates as “Where are the Zombies?” — opens with a Narrator (senior Cory Coleman) introducing a company of actors, who proceed to relate the incident through a mixture of song, dance and traditional sangoma chants.
The fictional troupe is joined by Intombi Nyama (senior Chauncy Thomas), a famous local actor who portrays an 11-year-old girl and friend of the deceased students. The girl claims to hear the voices of the zomboid students emanating from the closet of her grandmother, Mrs. Magudu (senior Monica O’Malley), thus confirming the witchcraft rumors.
“There are a lot of parallels between Ipi Zombi? and The Crucible,” said senior Pushkar Sharma, a double-major in theatre and international studies. “But I think there’s an easier moral standard in The Crucible: we know who’s lying and who’s making things up. Ipi Zombi? is messier. We’re not sure whether or not there are any zombies; maybe witches have the power to enslave people, maybe they don’t.
“Ipi Zombi? is a very theatrical play, very dark and ominous, almost like a ghost story,” he continued. “Bailey mixes avant-garde and ritualistic approaches. The actors take on exaggerated movements and vocal qualities. It’s very spectacular and very image-oriented, but also includes a refreshing amount of humor.
“But this is not a play about ‘backwards Africa,'” Sharma added. “It’s about fear, how it hypnotizes society and destroys community. To me this play is extremely relevant to our country today. The blind fear of witchcraft in Ipi Zombi? parallels the blind fear of terrorism that exists in America today. In Ipi Zombi? women are murdered because they are feared as being witches; today in our country Muslims, Arab-Americans, Sikhs and others are murdered because they are wrongly feared as being terrorists.”
The cast of 14 also features senior Jenny Lichtenberg in the dual role of Devil and TV Reporter; sophomore Kellen Hoxworth as Krotch; junior Lemar Moore as Cop/Zol; freshman Sathya Sridharan as Steve; and Shewan Howard as Senti.
Choreography is by Cecil Slaughter, lecturer in the PAD’s Dance Program. Costumes are by Bonnie Kruger, senior lecturer and coordinator of the PAD’s Design & Technical Theatre Program. Vocal advisor is Lisa Campbell, lecturer in music in Arts & Sciences, with musical arrangement by sophomore Dan Silver. Set design is by junior Grace Choi. Lighting is by Matt Kitches, sound by junior Derek Dohler. Annamaria Pileggi, senior lecturer in the PAD, served as project advisor.
Brett Bailey is director of the South African performance company and school Third World Bunfight, which he founded in 1996 after a studying sangomas ceremony and folklore in rural eastern South Africa. Other plays include Imumbo Jumbo (1997) and The Prophet (1999) — both collected, along with Ipi Zombi?, in the book Plays of Miracle and Wonder (2004) — as well as Big Dada (2001) and House of the Holy Afro (2004). In addition, Ipi Zombi? has been adapted for radio by BBC World Service.
WHO: Performing Arts Department
WHAT: Ipi Zombi? by Brett Bailey, directed by Pushkar Sharma
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 27 and 28, Feb. 3 and 4; 2 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 5
WHERE: A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
COST:$15; $9 for seniors, students and Washington University faculty and staff. Available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
INFORMATION: (314) 935-6543