Earlier this year, Johanna Pfaelzer attended a reading of a new musical by Jocelyn Bioh, Saheem Ali, and Michael Thurber. In its fledgling stage, Goddess didn’t even have songs (“We had ideas for songs where actors read some lyrics, and some moments where we played some tracks,” says Ali), but Pfaelzer, the artistic director of Vassar College and New York Stage & Film’s Powerhouse Theater, knew there was something special in this story and offered the trio a Musical Workshop slot for Powerhouse’s 2019 season, where it bows July 26–28.
The concept for the musical comes from Ali, who learned the African myth of Marimba while in high school in Kenya and, as he says, “was always struck by how theatrical and musical it felt.” He recruited Bioh (School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play) to write the book inspired by this parable of a goddess blessed with a beautiful singing voice, but cursed by her mother to never find love.
“We had a real opportunity here to take a story that is only a paragraph and make a completely original musical—an original and African musical,” says Bioh, “which quite literally doesn't exist.”
Their version takes place in the modern East African city of Mumbasa, Kenya, where a young man returns home from studying in the U.S. to join his family’s political legacy as mayor of the city. But when he meets the sensual jazz singer Nadira, he’s captivated by romance, danger, and electric chemistry.
Though Ali and Bioh have worked together for years, this is their first musical collaboration—and the first original musical from either of them to earn a public presentation.
“Jocelyn and I talk a lot about—in terms of African stories—dispelling Western impressions of what Africa is and what Africa feels like and how the contemporary and the ancient can live side by side,” says Ali, who directs the piece. “So it felt like this modern setting with this ancient myth could have a really beautiful kind of synergy.”
Goddess’ music from Thurber also reflects a blend, but of regions instead of time. His own Thurber Theater stages concerts that specifically showcase top artists across musical genres, structured more like a playlist on shuffle than a single artist’s album.
Thurber firmly grounds Goddess’ sound in Africa—mainly West African with hints of the east and north, as well as the Middle East—while also teasing out African influences in American styles like jazz and R&B. “All of that is sort of merged with western musical theatre tradition so it's really a lot of different things going on,” says Thurber. “[Africa] was the origin of so many of the different pieces of musical vocabulary, musical tradition that we use now around the world. It is quite frankly like a musical motherland.”
And as the trio develop the musical on their Powerhouse retreat, they experiment with the story (filling holes in story and adding music that was missing in that early reading) and its structure (something between immersive and presentational).
“It's a really kind of lovely bait and switch in that people think they're going be seeing a fun, hot night at an African club and jamming and dancing to this music, and then all of a sudden they're in a spiritual world. That's a thing in this musical that is not obvious at the onset of the play.”
What’s also not obvious is where audiences will be able to see Goddess next. The project does not yet have producers attached, but the team is hopeful.
“It's very special,” says Thurber. “It has that sort of magical buzz and that comes from Jocelyn and Saheem and the three of us really enthusiastically dreaming this up.”