“generations” At the SOHO Rep: South Africa comes downtown

The Soho Rep downtown is a place where for decades one can expect to witness many new plays, difficult works, challenging language and ideas of brutality and beauty, but never in all these years as anything like the glorious “generations” graced the entirety of the Walker Street space.

I knew nothing about this production when a wise journalist pal visiting from Jakarta tipped me to it; such is the miracle of modern global existence. From the moment the audience enters the theater, now filled with the evocative, bright orange sand of southern Africa to the tin walls painted the brightest colors available, one is in South Africa. The theater is set up with a random selection of chairs and stools all scattered willy-nilly around a cook stove and a kitchen table. The onions are simmering and the air is redolent with spices.

A troika of tall men in summer shirts was installed behind where we sat and made glib conversation with the audience as if they too were just there for the show. I think we all knew better. But nothing could prepare my soul and spirit for what happened when the first foot falls thudded to the ground and the conga blared and voices boomed in chants and clicks and undulations transforming the small space into a sacred shrine.

The miracle of a play, written by debbie tucker green (yes, all lower case, like the title) is in fact a circular tone poem. It is the same language repeated in different cadences, by different cast members, overlapping words and people on top of each other. “I was the cooker — you was the cookless — I was the cooker who coached the cookless.” It is in the same rhythm as Gertrude Steins, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” With many more iterations, prose and voices.

It is told at first by the entire three generation ensemble: grandparents who are so evocative and moving, Thuli Dumakude and Jonathan Peck; parents, Ntombikhona Diamini and Michael Rogers; and young soon-to-be lovers: the girlfriend so fierce and independent Shyko Amos, and the sweetie who woes her, the irrepressible Mamoudou Athie.

There is a junior sister, sweet and troublemaking Khail Toi Bryant and of course, the kick-ass choir featuring 13 members each better voiced and more winsome than the next. The choir makes the room vibrate and locks the piece together like musical super glue. The composition, arrangement and music direction is by Bongi Duma whose current credits, of course are musical director for “The Lion King.” But, here you get the same transportive music in what might be your back yard and it is so gob smacking.

The immersive set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and is brought to life by the genius of the duo behind Scenic Factory, George Hoffman and Greg Kozatek, who is really a sorcerer for sourcing props and set décor. Of course, none of this could make a 45-minute piece coalesce without director Leah Gardiner who understands how to move bodies and emotions and whose work is often seen at SOHO Rep.

“generations” runs through Nov. 9 at SOHO Rep Theater, 46 Walker Street, in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit sohorep.org or playco.org

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