The atmosphere in Symphony Space on February 2 was like that of a school concert, where the audience is filled with friends and family proudly watching their loved ones perform. At Drum Love, everybody became friends and family the minute they stepped through the door.
There was a response of such visceral delight to the entire production, beyond anything suggested by the mere description in the program. The show’s story wasn’t anything particularly unheard of: a young woman in Africa (N’dack Fleming) falls for and pursues two men she meets there despite her family’s warnings. She becomes pregnant and initially fears shame, but she eventually discovers that her family will support her regardless. A classic tale of love and acceptance – nothing revolutionary, right? But the way the performers, through music and dance, delivered that tale – as a force of unity, as an exhibition of unwavering passion – made it extraordinary to witness. No, not just to witness. To be a part of. Drum Love was created as a contemporary tribute to traditional African culture, but the cultural foundations it emphasizes are values that can move anyone: love, acceptance, family.
And moved people were. The rousing cheers and applause were so constant that they became like another layer of background music above the actual orchestra onstage. But it wasn’t disruptive; rather, it supported the music almost naturally, as though the show was conceived to invite such celebration and connection from the audience. Perhaps it was, and it worked. There wasn’t a moment where the pace of the music felt out of step with the concurrent dancing, or the tone didn’t seem to match the mood of a scene. In equally perfect sync, the audience responded as though rehearsed to the moments of excitement as the woman found herself intrigued by the men, tension as they met the woman’s parents, worry as the men debated who fathered her child, and triumph as her family ultimately rallied around her.
The drums in particular (as expected, considering the title) stood out as a character all their own. In place of dialogue, the players conversed, beckoned, bantered, argued, and flirted in drumbeats. The drum played by one of Fleming’s suitors (Kweku Sumbry) manifested his confidence and swagger. Act 2 opened with a “drum call” featuring a group of youth playing their instruments with such intensity, the theater all but shook. The number didn’t advance the plot, but it was a nevertheless powerful moment that heightened the feeling of love in the room and thrust it upon the audience (who replied with a louder chorus of applause than for the rest of the show combined).
The show was put on by the Asase Yaa African American Dance Theater, and the dancing truly drove the show. It had the two major marks of a well-choreographed piece: it successfully told a story without needing words, and it inspired an emotional response. Every move was clearly imbued with fervor and purpose. The full-cast “Doundounba” number, in which the young woman first meets the two men, was particularly striking for how it portrayed the buzzy excitement of a modern party while maintaining the integrity of African dance.
Drum Love champions love for the sake of love and dancing for the sake of dancing. It celebrates the preservation of a rich cultural heritage and finding in it, at least for the two hours when the African drums set the pace of your heartbeat, infectious and unbridled joy.