Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere musical Goddess is a celebratory love letter to all styles of music that are variations of the African diaspora, proclaims the production’s composer and lyricist, Michael Thurber, in a phone interview.
“At some points you hear something that harkens back to old styles. But [you hear] also modern Afrobeat, R&B, American jazz, and African jazz musicians who heard American blues and jazz musicians of the time and made their own versions. And then in an interesting dialogue, those American musicians heard that new music and made their own new music. It’s all filtered through the lens of American classical musical-theater songbook writing that’s lyrically influenced by the sentiments of blues and jazz.”
Goddess is inspired by African folklore and the mythology of Marimba, a goddess who, according to legend, fashioned string instruments and, through melody and rhythm, expressed her heartache after the deaths of multiple husbands. Transported into contemporary relevance by Thurber, playwright Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play), and conceiver/director Saheem Ali (Merry Wives, Fat Ham), Goddess features a singer who sweeps into an Afro-jazz club in Mombasa, Kenya, and captures the interest, heart, and soul of a young man. He has returned from America to assume his familial title and continue the family’s political legacy after marrying his fiancée.
“The thing that drew me to the story is that it’s timeless,” says Thurber. “All the themes are major, universal. It’s about love, fate versus free will, deciding what to do with your life, deciding where love fits into that life. It’s an original commercial musical set in a culture I’ve never seen onstage before, set in Africa with only African characters. I’ve been aware of how vibrant the culture is on the African continent. This is a global story, and what makes it unique is the specificity of the setting in a Mombasa jazz club.”
Thurber says any musical is first and foremost a play. Songwriters, he suggests, can get swept away with creating gorgeous melodies and harmonies or intriguing fusions of various styles and forget the kernel at the center of a musical: the narrative. On a granular level, it all boils down to words. Much like the pain that is the taproot leading to joy and celebration in the musical, crafting lyrics and weaving songs into the spoken words comes with plenty of tribulation — and countless rewrites.
“In our process, we crafted every scene before we went away to work on it. We figure out the theatrical beats and what does the character want to express. Then we [Bioh and Thurber] do our work in isolation. I start from prose first. ‘I love you and want to be with you forever’ is too bald, but it’s a good place to start from. You then find whatever language will bring that to life. There’s an insane amount of rewriting. There’s one song the parents sing — they reference a specific thing happening — and when the plot changed, that lyric needed to change, and that meant everything around it had to change, too.”
Not only do nearby words or entire references need to be changed each time the story changes, every lyric has to push the narrative forward. Each word or phrase has to be imbued with the characters’ needs and desires. “The lyrics in three to four minutes of a song have to move a character from point A to point B,” Thurber says. Songs also must arise organically, without a big build-up signaling “amazing vocalization about to occur” or “Broadway blockbuster song on its way.”
Thurber says achieving subtlety and power when composing for a musical comes from working with people he trusts, loves, and admires. “If you don’t trust the book writer, it won’t work. You’re married at the hip during the development, and you have to work together with laser precision. You want zero hiccups between the spoken word and the end and beginning of every song. You can only find that if you work in an integrated way. You can’t, as the composer, be too precious.”
Thurber and Bioh have contrasting artistic tendencies and shared values that combined to serve them well, the composer and lyricist says. “We both value clarity. When you’re young, you want to get in amazing imagery or lines. What separates great writers and songwriters is clarity. In a writer’s room, a muscle for sifting through plot points develops with time. Jocelyn does that well. A counterpoint is that she’s primarily a comedy writer, and that’s her center of gravity. My center is the big emotional stake each character deals with. So, for example, a turn or decision with high stakes, that’s where I excel. We cover the span while coming from each end of the spectrum.”
Similarly, Thurber won’t allow a conversation about Goddess to conclude without praise for other collaborators. “Saheem is the dream director to work with. It’s his heart. Every step, he’s fully engaged. He’ll be a sounding board at 1 or 6 a.m. He’s incredibly organized also. When Jocelyn and I get deep into the psyche of a character, he stays aware of the big picture, of prioritizing. He keeps the train on the tracks. He’s generous and interested in bringing people from different walks of life to participate. Musicalizing this myth was his idea, and he could have said to me, ‘What do you, an American, know about Kenya and Mombasa?’ But he looked into my work and valued my person and my music. I think that’s unique: the ability to tap into the essence of each person.”
Thurber says Amber Iman, the actor/vocalist of Ghanaian and African American heritage who plays the goddess, is “a once-in-a-generation talent.” Working with her pushed him to take more risks and led his writing process to higher levels. “We set a lot of the songs in the show totally by ear, singing to each other,” he says. “We were reacting in real time, and I believe that’s how you make something real and organic, earthy and grounded.”
Thurber has countless descriptions for the music he has written for Goddess, but one word you will not hear him use favorably is “genre.” He knows categorizing music is helpful and even essential for marketing and branding a production, a new album, or a performer, but focusing on the differences in styles is not how he thinks — or, he suggests, the world thinks — about music.
“Globally, the overarching thought is that music is more similar than it is different. Vastly. The small differences are important, don’t get me wrong, but categorization is overused in America. All those genres were created for selling music, not for artistic reasons. We overindulge in genre branding. At the same time, deep in the language of music, the subtle differences reflect the specificity of the culture it came out of. But stepping back into commonalities, we know the pentatonic scale was around the entire world before we were even in touch with each other. We hear ancient music translated orally, and it’s all written in pentatonic scales. Look at the history of the flute or other instruments. All cultures have versions of drums or guitars. That’s what’s exciting to talk about.”
Previews for Goddess at Berkeley Repertory Theatre begin Sunday, Aug. 14, with opening night Wednesday, Aug. 24. Performances run through Sunday, Sept. 25. Find tickets and more information on the company’s website.
Correction: As originally published, the article listed the wrong cast member in the role of the goddess. We regret the error.