Theatre ZUMBI Theatre Royal, Stratford, London

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The Independent Culture
Zumbi celebrates the legend of Zambi, a 17th-century Brazilian slave hero who ruled Palmares, an autonomous city-state of freed slaves, and defended it against the Portuguese. Presented by Black Theatre Cooperative and Brazil's Bando De Teatro Oludum, it is a rousing musical drama that combines Zambi's story with that of a divided black British community, represented by 15 colourful, bickering stereotypes including a Jamaican ragamuffin, a Nigerian illegal immigrant and a Black Muslim. Inspired by Zambi's example, they bury their differences and unite to fight injustice.

This is political theatre on a grand scale, mixing songs, poetry, Afro- Brazilian drumming and spectacular choreography with a treasury of alienation devices, from having the actors sit in the audience or address it directly to presenting the history of black slavery as radio news. Much of the action takes place in a semi-circle of musical instruments, including rattles and a dozen or so surtos (big carnival drums), behind which floats a large banner depicting a Brazilian street urchin pointing a gun.

The set is simple but conveys, clearly enough, the spirit of rebellion that here accompanies tradition. The script is largely improvised - the Brazilian director Marcio Meirelles, in adapting his own play, wanted his British cast to inject their own words and experience of racism into the framework of the piece, which originally focused on the Afro-Brazilian experience.

The improvisations work satisfactorily: testimonies from the cast about growing up black in Britain add realism (and relevance) to the otherwise romantic treatment of Zambi's struggle to secure for his people social and economic progress.

The whole cast acquit themselves well. Chris Tummins is especially good as Tony, the homophobic saxophonist, while Lenny Algernon Williams puts in a wistfully comic performance as Jackson, a disdainful, straight-permed Black Muslim. But it is Glenna Forster-Jones as Kizaya, a Mercedes-buying madwoman, who finally steals the show.

Black Theatre Cooperative dazzles with a provocative, fast-paced production that hones elements of epic theatre to an unapologetically Afro-centric purpose.

n To 22 July, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15. Booking: 0181- 534 0310

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