The dance-theater extravaganza Pula!, billed as “Botswana on Broadway,” alit at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square for only three performances over two days. But it left a lingering sizzle of joy.
Pula! floods the stage with rhythm and song, storytelling, and a phalanx of aggressively talented dancers. It tells the story of a traditional village in Botswana headed by a charismatic and benevolent Chief (Alphons Koontse) and guided by a priest called the Rainmaker (Ntirelang Berman). “Pula” means rain, which to the villagers is not just a meteorological phenomenon but a life-giving force. (The pula is also the name of modern-day Botswana’s currency – that’s how important rain is.)
When a prolonged drought strikes the farming community, the Rainmaker finds his powers stunted – partly because, it’s hinted, some of the people have neglected their traditional ways. At first with agonizing reluctance, but then with steely courage, the Rainmaker’s daughter Mmapula (a mesmerizing Lone Thabang Motsomi) takes up the burden, embarking on a quest to the far corners of the land, through savannah and delta, seeking wisdom from distant tribes in order to bring home the life-giving rain.
When it comes, it spurs the most vivid and energized dance celebration you’re likely to see anywhere. But there’s fierce talent everywhere you look right from the beginning. A dagger-sharp band, passionate acting, powerful singing voices, and gloriously choreographed movement and dance make the show resound like a myth for the ages.
They also make it an excellent advertisement for Botswana tourism, an aim the show doesn’t try to hide, with sponsorship by the Botswana Tourism Organization along with New York company Battery Dance. Tourism videos played in the lobby, where the audience mingled with cast members in a huge party-like scene after the show.
But the commercialism takes away none of the fun, and none of the story’s emotional meaning. And more people should visit Botswana, one of Africa’s most beautiful, peaceful, and environmentally varied countries.
Through many colorful costume changes, the large company divides and merges to act out the drama and emotions of the tale, portraying mothers, young men, wedding celebrants, and a foreign tribe. They dance and sing and chant and act, sometimes in English and sometimes in what I assume is Setswana (with supertitles), to music that’s insistently rhythmic yet varied and evocative.
The languages of movement and song are, after all, universal: The wedding dance reminded me a little of the one in Fiddler on the Roof, the musical arrangements span tradition and Afropop, and there’s even a blues progression in one number, reminding us that the blues evolved from older traditional music brought to America by enslaved Africans.
Few Westerners know much, if anything, about Botswana. At most, they may have read some of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, seen the TV series based on them, or seen the 2016 film A United Kingdom starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, which recounted the creation of an independent Botswana in the 1950s. Unlike its neighbors South Africa and Zimbabwe, the country is almost never in the international news, since nothing terrible or even noteworthy seems to happen there.
In terms of tourism Botswana is probably best known as a safari destination, and it’s a fantastic one, but the Botswana Tourism Organization is aiming to widen the scope with Pula!. Mission accomplished. If this show or anything else by its creators comes to your neck of the woods, don’t miss it.