This story is the inspiration for “Yemandja”, a musical theater piece conceived by Kidjo; Jean Hébrail, her husband; and Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, their daughter. Angélique Kidjo leads a cast of 10 in the central role of a Yoruba orisha (or spirit) in the production, which makes its D.C. bow May 6-7 at the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center.
“If you go today to my city, which has become a big city, you still have the tree under which people were marked and counted, and the road that runs along the sea. So it’s physically there. It’s a reminder. We live with it,” Kidjo said in a recent phone interview in which she was joined by her daughter. “For me, it needs to be talked about.”
The singer’s link with the notorious past of Ouidah is not simply geographical. Her maternal line includes former slaves who returned to Africa from Brazil. “My mother’s maiden name is Fernando,” Kidjo recalled. “I grew up in the Creole culture, where you have this kind of carnival that you have in Brazil.”
The main character of “Yemandja” is the spirit of water, healing and fertility, a deity associated with the Virgin Mary in religions that combine Christian and African traditions. Yemandja becomes the guiding spirit of Omolola, a young woman whose singing can change the world, but only if her heart remains pure. Human trafficking is personified by Mr. DeSalta, whose name echoes that of an infamous historical figure, Francisco de Souza. (Often fictionalized, de Souza is the basis of the crazy character played by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1987 film, “Cobra Verde.”)
Kidjo left Benin in 1983 for Paris, where she met and married Hébrail, her longtime musical collaborator. Their daughter was born in 1993 in France but has lived most of her life in the United States, where her parents moved in 1997.
Kidjo’s multilingual career has grown into an extensive tour of music of African descent, exploring Brazilian and Caribbean styles as well as American funk, soul, jazz and more. (One of her projects was a 2018 reinterpretation of the Talking Heads’ Afrobeat-influenced “Remain in Light.” Two or three” songs with that title she wrote.
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Clearly, Kidjo has been thinking about the dramatic possibilities of Yemandja for decades. One place she sought guidance in mounting such a production was the Kennedy Center, which became co-curator of the play.
Advised to start with a two-page summary of the script, she turned to her daughter, a graduate of Yale Drama School. Hebrail Kidjo ended up writing the show’s book and lyrics, which were set to music by his parents.
“All of us, my mom and my dad, get along so well,” says Hebrail Kidjo, who recalls listening to his parents at work in the recording studio under his bedroom in the family’s Brooklyn apartment while she was doing his homework.
The biggest hurdle of collaborating, the librettist said, “was discussions about a song’s emotion. They usually do a song that’s going to be on an album. Writing compositions that express character and move the narrative forward, “that was maybe a bit daunting.”
In addition to the Kidjo-Hebrail clan, the production enlisted another family: Cheryl Lynn Bruce is the director, and her husband, acclaimed visual artist Kerry James Marshall, is the production designer. Adding to what Hebrail Kidjo calls the show’s “big, open-armed kind of process” is the presence of three veteran members of Kidjo’s band: guitarist Dominic James, bassist Michael Olatuja and percussionist Magatte Sow. They are joined by keyboardist and musical director John Samorian.
The cast and crew are closely bonded, says Kidjo, in part “because of the subject matter that affects everyone. We all feel the trauma of slavery differently, in our minds, in our bodies. And the beauty of that game is that you’re free to express it however you want, differently. That’s okay.”
The current “Yemandja” tour is mainly reserved for the United States and will visit the Netherlands in June. But Kidjo is set to play the role for years and hopes to do so in Africa one day.
“I can’t wait to be there, she says, because we need it as much there as we do here. My goal and my dream is to play it everywhere.
At the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theatre. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.