Magic Time! A Conversation with Manu Kumasi About ‘Lost in the Stars’

“The situation in 1940s apartheid South Africa is very similar to what was seen in 1940’s America, 1960’s America, 1980’s America, and even what we see in the present day.”

I was talking with Manu Kumasi, an actor in the Washington National Opera’s production of Lost in the Stars, the powerful 1949 opera by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson based on Alan Paton’s great anti-apartheid novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. I had just attended the WNO production, directed by Tazewell Thompson, and I was curious about something.

Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln) and the cast of ‘Appomattox.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln) and the cast of ‘Appomattox.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Last November WNO programmed another opera that centered on race hate, Appomattox, about the Civil War and the country’s shameful legacy of slavery. The relevance of that opera to race relations here and now—what makes the work matter beyond the grandeur of the opera stage—was inescapably built in to the updated libretto.

Not so Lost in the Stars, which takes place far away back when. Its creators intended the work to be relevant and contemporary, as book and lyrics writer Anderson made clear in his letter to Paton requesting rights:

For years I’ve wanted to write something which would state the position and perhaps illuminate the tragedy of our own Negroes. Now that I’ve read your story I think you have said as much as can be said both for your country and ours.

But that was then, the 1940s. I wanted to know what Lost in the Stars says to us today. And there was a particular reason I wanted to ask Manu Kumasi.

In Lost in the Stars Manu plays Absalom, the wayward son of the central character, Stephen Kumalo. In the plot Absalom commits a murder-robbery in economic desperation for the sake of his unborn child and the woman carrying it.

(L to R) Erica Chamblee (Ida B. Wells) and Manu H. Kumasi (Noel) in 'The Gospel of Lovingkindness' at Mosaic Theater. Photo by Stan Barouh.
(L to R) Erica Chamblee (Ida B. Wells) and Manu H. Kumasi (Noel) in ‘The Gospel of Lovingkindness’ at Mosaic Theater. Photo by Stan Barouh.

In the plot of Marcus Gardley’s play The Gospel of Lovingkindness which is set in contemporary Chicago and was recently produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC, a young man named Noel, the wayward son of a single mother, commits exactly the same action, a murder-robbery, in exactly the same desperate economic straits with exactly the same motivation: to get money for a young woman he got pregnant.

And it was also Manu who played the part of Noel.

When this uncanny coincidence hit me, it occurred to me that Manu might offer a unique look at the resonances between South Africa in the 1940s and the United States now. My hunch paid off—more so than I could have known—as Manu shared fascinating insights into the opera seen through the eyes of the character he plays.

John: Did you know going into the parts of Absalom and Noel that their character arcs would be so alike?

Manu H. Kumasi. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen.
Manu H. Kumasi. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen.

Manu: It actually did not hit me at first, as every character and play is different, but after a while: Definitely. There are many parallels between the worlds of these two young men—having impregnated a woman and living in poverty in the black neighborhood of the city, having very limited earning potential, both taking such aggressive actions and it not going well, accidentally killing a man, and then having to confess their actions to parents who love and adore them—In Gospel of Lovingkindness I tell my mother; in Lost in the Stars I tell my father—in both cases knowing it’s going to literally break the soul of my character’s parent. Even though 1949 South Africa is not 2013 Chicago, there are many parallels between the lives of these two characters who live there, respectively.

There’s that song sung by the white chorus, “Fear!” (“Yes we fear them. For they are many and we are few”).

Yes. And Weill has the black chorus mirror that sentiment in the same song with “Yes we fear them. Though we are many and they are few.”

And then there’s that line, said about black South Africans, “They live in poverty and fear and they grow desperate,” which syncs right up with our inner cities today.

It totally does. Unfortunately, the situation in 1940s apartheid South Africa is very similar to what was seen in 1940’s America, 1960’s America, 1980’s America, and even what we see in the present day. The affects of this country’s history regarding racism, inequality, and injustice are still very present today.

For black South Africans, their country, way of life, traditions, and family structure was forever changed. And they were forced to adapt to people—foreigners—imposing their will on them and their country. I am not South African, so I can only observe as an outsider and imagine what it would be like to live in those specific circumstances. But, as a man of African descent living in America, I definitely feel like there are at least some significant similarities between the story of black South Africans and that of black Americans.

Absalom’s circumstances, decisions, and experiences are specific to 1949 South Africa. However, they exist and are replayed in modern-day America, too. Through Absalom, Weill, and Maxwell explore one potential path for a self-determined young man who takes action in the face of a seemingly unjust world. Gardley does the same through Noel in The Gospel of Lovingkindness.

The tragic ending of Lost in the Stars is the tolling of the clock at four, signaling that Absalom has been hanged for committing murder. And Stephen, his father, is left grieving. 

Stephen is broken. He is lost at the end.

Earlier there’s a moral turn that Absalom makes when instead of lying, which could have saved his life, he chooses to tell the truth, that he did it.

In Lovingkindness, Noel runs away, whereas Absalom does not. That was one of the interesting differences between actions that these two characters take. And the scene in which Absalom has to tell his father what has happened, knowing it’s going to break Stephen, is Absalom’s toughest moment to date. He has to tell his father that he has killed a man and not just “a man”: a man who was his father’s friend and one of a seemingly small number of people who were white champions for social equality in South Africa during Apartheid. It’s an absolutely horrible position in which Absalom finds himself.

At the beginning Absalom is not so aware of the potential effects of his actions and why he should act more responsibly. This is why he could take the actions that he does, how he could go about achieving his goals in such an obviously bad way. After killing Arthur Jarvis specifically, though, Absalom gains perspective. I definitely do not think that Absalom is a hero in the traditional or tragic sense of the word. However, he does decide to do the moral thing by the end of the play: to “do no more evil, tell no more untruth.” Eric Owens, who plays Stephen, lays out this arc of Absalom so beautifully in the song “O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!”

Many people look at Lost in the Stars and focus on Stephen’s journey, which is important; it is a major character arc. But the character arc of Absalom in the libretto is right up there in meaningfulness.

Lost in The Stars explores Stephen’s journey, no doubt. And Absalom’s character serves Stephen’s journey well. At the same time, I think that Absalom’s character can resonate with a modern and American audience well because it is the story of a young person grasping at a better life—attempting to live beyond dirt and filth and squalor. No one wants that for themselves and their family. Absalom has his flaws and is arguably a “bad apple,” yes, but there are parts of Absalom and his story that I believe are universally relatable. 

We see Absalom’s decision-making along the way, and we see where it gets him and where it takes the whole piece. It isn’t about how much he’s on stage; it’s about how the moral dimension of his character is driving the story.

Yes, I agree. By default, Absalom is a disruptor. And he strongly affects everyone with whom he comes into contact. Especially, of course, Stephen.

Stephen loves him. He adores his son.

He does. And it’s interesting, their relationship. The two understand life and South Africa so differently. When the story starts, Stephen and Absalom are at polar opposites and then they end up closer to where the other starts! Stephen had faith in God, something beyond Man. It is beautiful. But, in his relentless attempts to come to grips with Absalom’s life, Stephen hits rock bottom and is broken. His faith was so strong before. Not anymore.

On the other hand, we are introduced to Absalom when he is the most frustrated with the world. “Oh Goddamn this world” is one of his earlier lines. And he has less of a moral compass than Stephen. He does not have faith like Stephen does. He is impatient. He robs and steals. And he treats Irina, the mother of his child, horribly. That changes by the end of the play.

He’s been broken in the mines, right?

Yes. Exactly. Things were peaceful and quiet in the hills of Ndotsheni, which is where he grew up. There was harmony in that place. I imagine that Absalom was mischievous as a kid, but he was still, more or less, a good kid. And then he goes to Johannesburg, this crazy city, he works in the mines, lives in poor conditions, hangs with loose people, and chases relief from this hard life that he lives. He gives in to what could have always been inside of him. He is frustrated with the world. And this makes an already desirous Absalom even more fiery.

Every night when I see Stephen’s breakdown at the end of the play, I think that that can be where Absalom starts. Probably not weeping. But just as strongly and negatively affected by the world in which he lives, yes. The mines, Johannesburg, Shantytown, Apartheid. And these dire circumstances lead to Absalom buying a gun. They also encourage him to rob and commit other crimes.

Yes, Absalom is very affected by the world in which he lives.

Manu Kumasi as Absalom Kumalo. Photo by Karli Cadel.
Manu Kumasi as Absalom Kumalo. Photo by Karli Cadel.

Lost in the Stars is really an amazing father-son narrative. To hear you talk about it as an actor through the eyes of the character you play is so illuminating. Absalom’s decision to do the right thing though it will cost him his life gives the story as a whole a redemptive meaning.

As an actor, I have to play the truth of my character alone. However, the overall story and all of the story’s characters are so moving. Weill and Anderson were faithful in interpreting Paton’s work and dramatizing it. There’s truth and love woven so deeply into the text and the music. And although I don’t think that the character Absalom is concerned much about redemption, taking in his character as a reader of the libretto and as an audience member, I can definitely see redemptive qualities for sure.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.