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Yemandja, in setless version, is very much neatly American though.

It shows either enormous guts, or boundless naivety, to make a musical in which a slave trader in Africa is converted by a song to a life of love and respect for fellow human beings. Yet Yemandja, the play performed in a setless version at the Holland Festival, is actually just that.

 I could also explain it as that the magic of art can break through hatred, or that the spirit of reconciliation must always prevail even in the face of the greatest crimes, but even then. 

Too early for reconciliation?

Angelique Kidjo, Associate Artist of the Holland Festival 2020, is the creator and creator of this American project and she is therefore the one with that naivety and/or that guts. But since she is from Benin, is black and so can hardly be called naive, I'll stick to 'guts'. At a time when the first tentative sorrys are sounding from former enslaved countries, such as the Netherlands and the US, hundreds of years after the deed, for many whose great-grandparents still lived in slavery, such a reconciliation may be a bit on the early side. 

There is also something ironic about this whole project, which cannot be uncontroversial in America either. The sets and costumes for the version to be played in the Holland Festival had already been packed and hoisted aboard a ship in a container at New York harbour in early May. However, it was also lifted off again several times, to make way for "relief goods" for Ukraine, which at the moment will be mostly weapons and ammunition. 

Hampered by absent scenery

Thus, a piece about peace and reconciliation through the power of music and water could be hampered by the war effort taking precedence. 

Because hampered, of course, was that absent set. That would certainly have helped the performance: the visual spectacle would surely have diverted some attention from the unfortunately musically rather weak programme. 

The combo, with percussionist, bass, guitar and organ, sounded like a combo, not like a sparkling and swinging piece of life force, which I was kind of hoping for. The singing, though better performed than many a Dutch musical talent could do, was very much American. The dramaturgy was that of a musical from the books, with all the right songs in the right places.

Complicated story

Yemandja's story is quite complicated to explain, and it is actually a shame that Angelique Kidjo tries to do so anyway. Must be from the producer, who will not be used to layered and meandering storytelling techniques. A battle between water spirit and air spirit, family relations in a country where the Portuguese slave trader plays a more than dubious role, and in the end is even willing to sacrifice his own son, a double-blood from a marriage to an African woman, a domestic rebellion that seems doomed to fail, and then a singer with a magical voice who no longer dares to sing. 

A lot of ingredients, then, and therefore a lot of narrative passages. This made it all a bit difficult to like, but of course that could also be due to that sea container with sets and costumes, which now seems to be on its way to Amsterdam, arriving at the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg too late for the performances. 

What remains is the mesmerising presence and charisma of Angelique Kidjo herself, who knows the venue and her fellow performers at her feet every moment she emerges.

Good to know Good to know
Yemandja can still be seen on 18 June. Enquiries via Holland Festival.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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