Percussion in the Audience

Percussion in the Audience

A new Off-Broadway hit incorporates participant drumming to South African rhythms

David Warren, tall, slim, boyish and as brainy as you could ever want, has directed and won awards for such erudite dramas as “Holiday,” “Hobson’s Choice,” “Summer and Smoke,” “Misalliance,” “The Dazzle,” “Hurrah at Last,” “Night and Her Stars,” “Pterodactyls” and on and on.

He is also director of “Drumstruck,” a huge Off-Broadway hit that has very few words but lots of very loud drums, including 400 that are happily being pounded from time to time by 400 happy audience members at Dodger Stages 2 on West 50th Street.

What gives? It must surely involve a whole different set of gears.

“Yes,” Warren said, cheerfully. “I am fiercely opposed to specialization. I’ve always tried to follow one type of assignment with a different type of assignment.

“With [Philip Barry’s] ‘Holiday,’ I had not before directed a classic play, or even a classic American play. And I had to tap dance to get that job, had to convince the artistic director of Circle-in-the-Square, because I was then known as a director of new plays.”

Warren’s triumph was made easier by bringing in Laura Linney––“the thinking man’s sex symbol,” he said with a smile––to the role once owned by Katharine Hepburn.

“And right after ‘Holiday,’ I got several offers to direct ‘The Philadelphia Story’ [also by Philip Barry], and I said no. Though I did do it some years after at the Hartford Stage Company.”

There are eight or nine men and a couple of young women in “Drumstruck” ––terrific drummers, dancers, singers from the Zulu, Batswana and other South African tribes. One is a big woman named Tiny Modise, and the other, a slim beauty named Ayanda, who gives welcome to the New York audience and does a song made famous by her lifelong heroine, Miriam Makeba.

“I created a role for Ayanda––for a woman with a certain set of talents––before I knew that she existed,” Warren said. “This was in Johannesburg. Somebody charismatic, and beautiful, and could sing well and speak enough English to guide us into the show. Ayanda walked into the room where we were having auditions, and there she was, blessed with all of the above.

“Actually, they all speak English, some quite well and some not quite so well, while the only language I speak is English—plus some Italian, which is not all that helpful.”

The ages of the 11 people in the cast range from 21 to 30.

Another “Drumstruck” star is Enock Bafana Mahlangu of the Ndebele tribe––the “facilitator” who holds the entire 400 people in the Dodger’s seats in the palms of his two hands, so to speak, though he himself speaks not a word; with body motion and other magic he gets those 400 people to hit their drums, on cue, as one.

A Johannesburg entrepreneur named Warren Lieberman, who once owned a place called Drum Café and now has an international chain of Drum Cafés, is the man who conceived and, with the help of director Kathy-Jo Ross, launched “Drumstruck” in 1997. The interaction with a drum-equipped audience has been in the concept from the beginning.

When the Dodger Stages people heard about it, they turned to David Warren, who had done “Barbra’s Wedding” and other shows for them, and last December sent him to Sydney, Australia, where “Drumstruck” was then playing, to take a look.

“I had no idea what it was, or what it meant, or what they were talking about, but I was intrigued. I went and looked and was blown away, but also realized it needed to be reconceived and redirected and made significantly more New York-ready.”

Warren, who lives on West 15th Street in Chelsea with actor Peter Frechette, was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in 1961. He grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan and in Larchmont. His parents are public-school teachers.

“They’re very proud, and played their drums very loudly the other night,” Warren said.

Warren came out of Sarah Lawrence a philosophy major, and then found himself learning about theater from James Lapine and Des McAnuff.

“I have to say it’s been an amazing journey. I always love what I do. But this show,” he said, “has been so full of surprises, spending a month in Johannesburg with these amazing artists and their sophisticated musicianship.”

But no more musicals for David Warren––not for a while.

“The last thing I want to do now is be in a room with a composer, a dance arranger, a music director, and a choreographer. I want to be in a room with a dead playwright and five actors.”

Warren is next off to Viterbo, Italy, outside Rome, to do just that. You’ll be hearing about it.