Four hundred years ago Europeans tried to carve up the great continent of Africa, to trade away its wealth and its people. Into this world Nzinga is born, the second-eldest child of the Ndongo King and his ex-slave second wife. She learns from old storytellers, from a Portuguese priest, and from listening to the court. And at a time when her people have only spears to face the enemy's guns, her knowledge, understanding and intelligence become key weapons.
We meet an Nzinga as an old woman, but she soon discards her staff and takes us through the journey of her life. Through moments in her youth and early adulthood, we draw a picture of how she became so astute and so courageous, and of her relationships with those around her. Her political acumen is evident from her first meeting with the commissioner; not to be drawn into his games, she refuses to sit on a mat and look up to him while they negotiate. Later, as the invaders try to take her people as slaves, she becomes their Queen, working to unite them in their fight for freedom.
This is a fascinating piece of history, and the presentation of it is riveting. It is impossible not to admire Nzinga; she is so well-portrayed, and such a feisty, intelligent woman. An unlikely heroine, she is particularly notable because women – and especially African women – were discounted by the rulers and officials who held power at the time. Yet she is by no means perfect, and I like that the show includes both mistakes and less savoury acts; there are enough to remind us she was a real, fallible human, but not so many that you don't feel inspired.
Mara Menzies is a very talented storyteller, well able to carry the autobiographical style of the piece. From the very beginning her own family history helps illustrate what the normal expectations of women were, even just a century ago. And the musical accompaniment, dance and gradual change of clothing work so well together, showing the development of Nzinga's character, keeping track of time, and helping the scenes flow. The piece is well-paced, with action rising and falling as great storytelling does.
I was lucky enough to attend a signed performance; the interpreter was a boon even for the hearing among the audience, as she was highly expressive, and really added to the spoken recording at the beginning of the piece. There was one awkward moment, when the audience didn't recognise a cue to join in, and occasionally the sound effects were too loud, drowning out the performer. But these small issues hardly made any dent in this excellent show.
From a dark time in history comes the story of a woman, who used her education, her determination and her intelligence to stand up for her people and her land. You probably haven't heard of her – but you’ve been missing a story of great strength, suffering and determination. This is a truly inspiring tale, made all the better by the engaging storytelling.