In 1995, a bus crash outside Kokstad, South Africa, left 12 schoolboys dead. Wild rumors swirled that the crash was caused by witches and that 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. The Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences will present six performances in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
Shows will begin at 8 p.m. Jan. 27-28 and at 2 p.m. Jan. 29. Performances will continue the following weekend at 8 p.m. Feb. 3-4 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 5. Post-show discussions with members of the cast and production staff will follow the Jan. 28 and Feb. 4 shows.
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 director Pushkar Sharma, a senior Arts & Sciences double-major in theater 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.”
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 adviser 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 adviser.
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.
Tickets are $15 — $9 for students, children, senior citizens and WUSTL faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, 935-6543, and all Metro-Tix outlets. The Hotchner Theatre is located in Mallinckrodt Student Center.
Performances are co-sponsored by the African & African American Studies Program in Arts & Sciences.
For more information, call 935-6543.