When the polyrhythm is heard in
Nzinga Warrior Queen cannot hide its core as a standard origin story
Writer/performer Mara Menzies takes centre stage with the help of musician Yamil Ferrera. Framing the story by reference to her grandmother, she uncannily becomes the warrior queen, donning skirts and cowry shell necklaces to complete her transformation. Engaging and measured, she offers her story to the crowd. Menzies does this with ease, as someone who can use range to access a pleasant variety of figures and impersonate a man's speech and stature with astonishing accuracy.
The show’s blurb says Nzinga had “unrivalled determination, incredible wit, intelligence and resilience”. There are shades of this, certainly, but Nzinga Warrior Queen cannot hide its core as a standard origin story: it sketches her rise from hunter to royalty and fits it some Machiavellian jostling in between. Respectable, no doubt - as a story, plus a piece of untaught history. But the play’s ironically unadventurous for a tale about seizing female power in 1633. Even with Ferrera’s atypical percussion the show proffers staid theatre. There’s this lovely dynamic of Nzinga’s power grab against the forces of imperialism: Nzinga manoeuvres through the politics of a tentative Portuguese colony; there’s also an old friend who’s switches sides and betrays her. There's some real dramatic tension here, but then the shows axes the problem without due care.
I’m not chiding a company for having humble aims in their storytelling. Humility can be powerful; it’s more that Nzinga Warrior Queen has two capable performers who aren’t given enough to work much magic.