Malindadzimu is a mother-daughter soap opera that takes in the enormous story of Africa’s imperial legacy. It begins in an NHS emergency room in Nottingham where a depressed teenager has taken an overdose, and continues in Zimbabwe, where the teenager and her mother contend with cursed lands and the restless spirits of Africa’s past.
It is an achievement that these divergent features come together so coherently, with testy power battles between Faith (Shyko Amos) and her only child, Hope (Kudzai Mangombe), that segue into an “ancestor” spirit striding the stage.
Mufaro Makubika’s script also weaves in the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes, the controversial imperialist who built his wealth on African oppression. The play is named after land in the Matobo hills where deified African figures are buried, among whom lies Rhodes. A long dead king commands Hope to dig up and destroy Rhodes’ grave and this element of the play feels strained; questions raised on traumatic colonial history and the need for its exorcism are otherwise well explored.
Monique Touko, who makes her professional directing debut, builds the pace and intrigue of a supernatural story but keeps the human drama bubbling. Gentle comedy runs through the production as Hope, Faith and an elderly farmhand, Gogo (Natasha Williams), fight out their differences. The actors give strong performances, the palpable warmth between them helping to create a charming, motley sorority.
Faith’s comic cynicism of African beliefs in ancestors visiting the living transforms into a more serious conversation: her doubt seems anchored in western, evidence-based empiricism, which is tested first by Hope’s claim that she can see visions of the dead and then by a spirit medium (Tendai Humphrey Sitima) who hopes to heal her. “Hocus,” says Faith at his suggestion that the land is “cursed”. And while he certainly looks hokey, shaking his rattle and demanding payment in US dollars, he meets Faith’s logic with valid counterarguments for his indigenous belief system. Despite the dramatic overload of the ending, the coexistence of the real and supernatural on stage works overall.
Zoë Hurwitz’s set transforms quickly from a hospital room to farmland, with a back-screen that changes colour with the mood, while Max Pappenheim’s sound design crisply captures every speck of sound, from birdsong to the drumbeats and ululations of the final scene.
The ancestor whose kingdom was destroyed by Rhodes’ forces, King Lobengula (Sifiso Mazibuko), pitches an uncompromising demand on Hope. “Finish my war,” he says. It may be an unrealistic request but it raises hotly topical issues around colonial legacy: how do we make peace while the mausoleums built to honour violent imperialists still stand? The focus snaps back to the mother-daughter story of the start but this big question hangs.
At Hampstead theatre, London, until 30 October