The old theatrical saw, "Always leave them wanting more," is stretched to its breaking point with the Black Rep's season-closing production of Mbongeni Ngema's South African musical, Sarafina. After two delirious hours of high-energy music and dance, what more could you possibly want from the show? Director Ron Himes and choreographer Keith Tyrone have pitched Sarafina so it comes at you like a string of thunderstorms, each explosive deluge somehow — at times impossibly — more cathartic than the last. The few times Sarafina pauses to let you catch your breath, something terrible happens within the story to snuff all the oxygen out of the room.
And still, there were times I wanted more in the way of that story. Sarafina is based on the true events of the school riots in 1970s South Africa, when the students rebelled against the government's apartheid policies. Ngema doles out the plot in a series of vignettes told by the students themselves, a method that results in a fractured narrative. In a clapboard and corrugated-steel set that appears to be held together with baling wire and spit, the students attempt to create a play about black South Africa's history — their history — even as the apartheid machinery literally grinds them down. But the students break up this assignment with anecdotes about their beloved classmate, Sarafina, played with gorgeous intensity by Sharisa Whatley.
Sarafina is described in song as intelligent and sweet — and as a politically active firebrand. Seemingly lit from within when she sings, and capable of turning that light into a baleful righteousness when confronted with brutality, Whatley makes that description seem modest. In a very young cast (ages 12 to 25, according to a staffer) that crackles with energy, Whatley shines still brighter.
Himes mines maximum dramatic impact out of the story through images that graphically relate the horrific nature of the struggle we only apprehend in snatches. The band (a crackerjack unit of guitar, trumpet, keyboard, bass and drums) wears military fatigues and stands atop a building overlooking the action. In addition to helping chop out street-tough music all night, trumpeter Joshua Williams joins the action as a policeman, shaking down students with his trumpet. Williams' involvement, a bizarre and confusing moment, embodies a country at war with itself. His accomplice in this scene, Hal Bates Jr., plays an ominous cop all night — and yet one scene after gunning down an entire classroom of students, he stands staring at his rifle with shock and betrayal, as if it were the guilty party.
Perhaps the disjointed nature of the plot is intentional, mirroring the chaos of Soweto in the '70s. Sarafina's greatest moments occur during the musical numbers, when the band pulsates and the cast radiates an exuberance that must be experienced to be fully understood. Here is the students' hope, their anguish, their belief in a cause — which is a belief in themselves — that transcends the occasional clumsiness of the story.
At the end of the first act, Whatley and the ensemble fight the police in a joyous dance that rocks the Grandel Theatre; Williams' trumpet becomes the only sound in the world worth hearing, and tears are streaming down my face. I don't know why. But a few moments after the intermission arrives and the lights come up, a small pair of hands begins clapping again, a request for more that carries throughout the theater, and I understand: Sarafina perhaps can't be taught, but it can be caught. Just let it come to you, and be thankful you're standing in its path.