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Angélique Kidjo’s new musical theater work comes to the Kennedy Center

‘Yemandja’ was co-written by the Benin-born singer-songwriter, her husband and their daughter

Angélique Kidjo stars in the title role in “Yemandja” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Doug Mason)
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Eclectic singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo was born in 1960 on the cusp of a new era: Her homeland, now called Benin, was just two weeks away from becoming independent from France. But her ancestral village, Ouidah, remained haunted by its past. It was one of the most notorious centers for transport of enslaved people to the Americas.

That history is the inspiration for “Yemandja,” a musical theater piece conceived by Kidjo; Jean Hébrail, her husband; and Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, their daughter. Angélique Kidjo leads a cast of 10 in the central role of a Yoruban orisha (or spirit) in the production, which makes its Washington bow May 6 and 7 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

“If you go to my town today, which has become a big city, you still have the tree under which people were marked and counted, and the road that runs all the way the sea. So it's physically there. It's a reminder. We live with it,” said Kidjo in a recent phone interview in which she was joined by her daughter. “For me, we have to talk about it.”

The singer’s link to Ouidah’s notorious past isn’t simply geographical. Her maternal line includes formerly enslaved people who returned to Africa from Brazil. “My mom’s maiden name is Fernando,” Kidjo recalls. “I grew up in Creole culture, where you have that kind of Carnival that you have in Brazil.”

The title character of “Yemandja” is the spirit of water, healing and fertility, a deity associated with the Virgin Mary in religions that combine Christian and African traditions. Yemandja becomes the guiding spirit for Omolola, a young woman whose singing can change the world, but only if her heart remains pure. The trade in human beings is embodied by Mr. DeSalta, whose name echoes that of an infamous historical figure, Francisco de Souza. (Often fictionalized, de Souza is the basis for the crazed character played by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1987 film, “Cobra Verde.”)

Kidjo left Benin in 1983 for Paris, where she met and married Hébrail, her longtime musical collaborator. Their daughter was born in 1993 in France but has lived most of her life in the United States, to which her parents relocated in 1997.

The multilingual Kidjo’s career has become a wide-ranging tour of African-rooted music, exploring Brazilian and Caribbean styles as well as American funk, soul, jazz and more. (One of her projects was a 2018 reinterpretation of the Talking Heads’ Afrobeat-influenced “Remain in Light.”) Kidjo’s 1994 album, “Aye,” includes a track called “Yemandja,” which she says with a laugh is one of “two or three” songs with that title she’s written.

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Clearly, Kidjo has been thinking about the dramatic possibilities of Yemandja for decades. One place she sought tips on mounting such a production was the Kennedy Center, which became a co-commissioner of the piece.

Advised to begin with a two-page summary of the scenario, she turned to her daughter, a graduate of Yale Drama School. Hebrail Kidjo ended up writing the show’s libretto and lyrics, which were set to music by her parents.

“We all, my mom and my dad, get along so well,” says Hebrail Kidjo, who recalled listening to her parents at work in the recording studio below her bedroom in the family’s Brooklyn apartment while she was doing her homework.

The collaboration’s biggest obstacle, the librettist said, “was the discussions about the emotion of a song. They are used to making a song that’s going to go on an album.” Writing compositions that express character and advance the narrative, “that’s what was maybe daunting a little bit.”

In addition to the Kidjo-Hébrail clan, the production enlisted another family: Cheryl Lynn Bruce is the director, and her husband, noted visual artist Kerry James Marshall, is the production designer. Adding to what Hebrail Kidjo calls the show’s “big, kind of open-arms process” is the presence of three veteran members of Kidjo’s band: guitarist Dominic James, bassist Michael Olatuja and percussionist Magatte Sow. They’re joined by keyboardist and musical director John Samorian.

The cast and crew have bonded tightly, Kidjo says, in part “because of the subject that everybody is so touched by. We all feel the trauma of slavery differently, in our minds, in our bodies. And the beauty of this play is that you are free to express it the way you want it, differently. It’s okay.”

The current “Yemandja” tour is booked mostly for the U.S. and will travel to the Netherlands in June. But Kidjo is prepared to perform the role for years, and hopes someday to do so in Africa.

“I’m looking forward to that,” she says, “because we need it there as much as we need to do it here. My goal and my dream is to play it everywhere.”

If you go

Yemandja

At the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.

Dates: May 6-7 at 8 p.m.

Prices: $25-$59.

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