Mercy Madonna of Malawi
Adopting a view of the Material Girl
This article is from 2009.
It’s reasonable to assume Robert Magasa never expected to land his latest stage role. He is tall, male and black and speaks with a distinct Malawian accent, characteristics that should disqualify him from playing Madonna, a pop star famous for being short, female, white and American. But in a move director Toby Gough calls ‘a reverse Black and White Minstrel Show’, it only takes a blonde wig, some face powder and a pointy bra for Magasa to make the transition.
‘It feels good to be a woman sometimes,’ laughs the actor when I meet him in Blantyre during rehearsals. ‘I don’t like to be in a dress – but I enjoy it.’
Putting an African spin on the story of four-year-old Mercy James who was adopted by the original Material Girl earlier this year, Mercy Madonna of Malawi is an upbeat musical that takes stock of a world in which a global superstar and a developing nation can find common ground. Without taking sides, it asks whether it is right for a child to be taken away from her culture if it means enjoying a life of privilege. ‘Everyone thinks this is the most relevant, modern, Malawian, sensitive, dangerous and hilarious play,’ says Gough. ‘Theatre is all about conflict and this has got so much argument and debate within it.’
Many Malawians are in favour of Madonna’s actions, but for Magasa the adoption of Mercy – and earlier David Banda – is a double-edged sword. ‘It’s good and bad,’ says the actor. ‘Good in the sense that she wants to help Mercy and she’s seen David’s life has been fine there. But bad because it would be easier just to fund the orphanages that are here. That would be better because the babies would be closer to their culture.’
St George’s West, 07761 716 929, 7–31 Aug, 3pm, £12 (£10). Preview 6 Aug, £10 (£8).