There are announcements of musicals that make you curious and those that make you happy. But there are also those that leave you sceptical.
I read Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower shortly after its appearance in 1998. It shocked me and in fact I–like many others–was confronted for the first time with the topic of female circumcision. I remember it depressingly, although it is actually the furious life story of a woman.
So now it’s a musical? To say it in advance: “Desert Flower” was one of the most impressive musical theatre experiences I have had up until now.
- Synopsis of the Musical „Wüstenblume“ (Desert Flower)
- The Musical
- Costumes (Claudio Pohle)
- Stage Design (Christopher Barreca)/ Visual Impression
- Choreography (Jonathan Huor)
- The narrative idea of the musical (Script: Gil Mehmert)
- The Performers
- Kerry Jean as Waris
- Naomi Simmonds as young Waris
- Dionne Wudu as Marilyn
- Susanna Panzner as Veronica
Synopsis of the Musical „Wüstenblume“ (Desert Flower)
Most people who will be watching the musical Desert Flower are likely to be roughly familiar with the life story of Waris Dirie. It is also told in the musical, but embedded in a frame story:
For a documentary, Waris and a camera team come to Somalia, where a meeting with her mother is to be recorded as part of a documentary. The mother, however, is not present for the time being. Each of the surrounding women tries to convince her out of self-interest that she herself is the mother of the famous model.
The camera team is annoyed that the mother is not coming and doubts that she will be coming at all. But Waris explains to them that the African clocks simply tick differently. She gets lost in herself, in Africa, in the feeling of her childhood. Here the musical flashes back and the audience now sees little Waris in Somalia. The family belongs to a traditional nomadic tribe and despite a hard, deprived life, the family seems content, the children carefree.
When Waris is 13 years old, her father decides to get the girl married. The decisive factor is probably the bride price of 5 camels. Waris fights back loud and hard, but the father remains tough. She has a violent nightmare the following night, after which the idea of escape matures in her. Her mother supports her and so a 13-year-old girl, alone, barefoot, with almost no money and without any literacy skills, sets off on the long and dangerous journey to the capital Mogadishu, where she hopes to find her older sister who also fled years ago.
Once there, she actually meets her sister and can get a job on a construction site. Then her uncle, a diplomat, takes her to London. There she works in his household as a maid, but without pay and without anyone teaching her English.
Haji, a relative living in the house, provides her with books that help Waris learn to read reasonably well. But one night Haji tries to rape Waris. After this incident both of them have to leave the household, also the uncle is transferred, the household is dissolved.
Since Waris hides her passport, she cannot be expelled to Somalia and is left to her own devices. She sleeps on the street and finds a job as an unlawful person at McDonalds.
This is how she meets Marilyn, a bubbly Londoner who becomes a good friend and takes Waris in. Finally, Waris gets to know London and begins to understand the English language. Waris increasingly gains a foothold in English life and trust in Marilyn, and so the friend learns of Waris’ trauma: as a child in Somalia she was circumcised by a witch.
Waris wants to get medical treatment by a gynaecologist, but the African way of thinking and the traumatic experience is still too much a part of her, so she breaks off the visit.
Her test shots, however, have impressed agent Veronica so much that she sends Waris to audition for the world-famous Pirelli calendar. Waris alone has no idea what purpose she is being photographed for, and so the casting ends in disaster: when she is asked to pose without upper clothes, she leaves the studio distraught and angry. After some good coaxing by Marilyn and the agent, Waris finally becomes part of the calendar. This would catapult her into the premier league of models, but:
To travel and continue modeling, she must have a valid passport. A lawyer takes over this matter and a little later Waris finds herself in a registry office to marry a fake husband unknown to her for a fee of 2000 pounds. The elderly, alcoholic O’Sullivan is obviously not someone you like to marry and so the unequal couple has to survive a control visit of the immigration office. O’Sullivan goes into an emotional song and secures Waris the longed for passport.
In a bar Waris meets jazz musician Dana and forms the first tender bonds.
At the same time her career takes off, Waris becomes the world’s best known and best booked top model. On the catwalk, another model reminds her of the woman who circumcised her back then, and in a flashback all the memories come back: the day that changed her life forever was the day she was circumcised.
And so Waris Dirie engages as UN Special Envoy against Female Genital Mutilation and informs the world about this horrible crime, to which 8000 little girls fall victim every day.
The internationally successful composer Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen is responsible for the melodies and Frank Ramond for the lyrics, who has been president of the German Lyricists’ Association since 2017. The team of authors is therefore a highly competent team, and they effortlessly meet all requirements.
The music can range from exuberant and fluffy to traditional and African-inspired, and covers a wide variety of musical styles: 80s disco sound, elegant tango, haunting ballads. At the same time it always remains pleasing, in other words, it is easy to listen to. From beginning to end, the alternation between the fast and strongly rhythmic pieces and the calm ones remains fascinating.
Already the song Ein Tag in Afrika (A Day in Africa) takes you to Wari’s birth continent through foreign sounds and uses an effect that seems uncanny and carries through the whole musical: The ensemble sings background vocals to a lead voice. These weave an incredibly strong soundscape with long polyphonic tones, mostly reduced to one vowel. It is not only sung, it is making music, real music. Thereby not only songs emerge. You get the feeling that the whole stage resounds, the whole scene is infused with melody, with atmosphere, with the feeling that the music transports. This mood immediately takes hold. The theatre is buzzing, from the first scene on you have the feeling that you are part of it.
This idea of African music sounds traditional, but does not slip into the cliché. The songs are like scarves that gently float, almost undetected, around the listener.
I have rarely felt so absorbed by music. It carries through the piece, it leads and is never there just for the purpose of creating a musical. The music tells this story. And at the highest level.
In the following I will give you a short overview of the songs.
- Ein Tag in Afrika / A Day in Africa
Waris arrives in Africa. After a long time she has home soil under her feet. She takes off her shoes to feel the sand between her toes to connect with her native soil. It gives a small insight into the African culture Waris comes from. African women and girls in traditional dresses sing.
- Kamele / Camels
Little Waris plays with her siblings happily tending the camels.
Ein langer Weg / A Long Way
Wari’s mother supports her child so that she can escape at night. She gives her daughter words of protection along the way.
The next day the whole family searches for Waris in the nomad camp. On the way through the desert Waris sings “My companions are hunger, thirst and fear.”
- Mogadischu Work Song
“Do not be afraid of the dirt on your skin.” Waris finds work on a construction site.
- Your face will turn white
I want Waris to come to London. She’s excited and wants to go there to escape her life in Africa. However, she cannot hide her fear of the long journey to a foreign country and a foreign culture. Her sister tells her that if she lives in London, she will also get a white face.
- London Worksong
In London, her duties are explained to her in her uncle’s household. Waris knows neither irons nor other household appliances and has to get used to them first. Here the actors change. Naomi Simmonds, who plays little Waris, exchanges her place with Kerry Jean as an adult Waris.
- The magic of words
Waris learns to read. It is a clever move that the first words she reads are: born in Somalia. Where her roots are, but where she was never meant to learn to read.
- London lives
The ensemble praises the merits of London and sings that the city will make you happy.
- Wüstenblume / Desert Flower
After a battle of words develops between Marilyn and Waris about the use/waste of water, Waris dives into the background again: behind a lowered transparent screen the stage is bathed in golden light, Waris is mentally in Africa. The ensemble, including Waris mother, sings of the joy reigning when rain falls in the desert. Everyone is carefree and happy, the desert flowers unfold to their full splendour – a beautiful allegory of Waris’ life. This desert flower also begins to bloom. It is the ear candy par excellence, resounds again later as a reprise and is sung again by the ensemble during the final applause. It is the formative piece.
- This is how you become a woman. Do you really not know
The most haunting song that will leave you shocked. Marilyn is complaining that since Waris has been living with her, she hasn’t had a chance to see men. Waris does not understand what her friend means, she only knows the African tradition that the husband alone is allowed to cut the woman open.
In the song Marilyn Waris tries to give an insight into what happens emotionally during sex and that it makes you a woman. She asks: Do you really not know it? Waris is completely shocked and explains the cruel ritual of circumcision to Marilyn, who is again stunned. She also asks Marilyn: Do you really not know it? The two situations are skillfully presented with almost identical text and juxtaposed.
You feel the woman who will blossom into you – You feel the child in you fade away
- Two sides
Where do I belong? Africa or Europe, black or white, traditional or modern?
Here the stage design projects wonderful photographs of Kerry Jean as Waris as larger than life onto a screen. The photographer plays with the black and white contrast, since in the pictures with a dark background Waris face appears lighter and vice versa her face seems much darker on a light background. Finally, both are put together on one picture, Waris seems to be divided in two. Again an allegory of her life, in which she has to unite black and white components. Judging by her origins, she appears to be much more European, from a European perspective she is African through and through.
- Act Two.Wüstenblume / Desert Flower Reprise
- What should I tell them (you don’t talk about that)
At the gynecologist’s Waris doesn’t dare to reveal her fate.
- Interrogation Agent
- In this one moment
- Play the game
Agency boss Veronica tries to persuade Waris to rethink her principles in order to move up. She tells her that only the beginning is difficult, but if she makes the breakthrough, she can set her own rules.
…by chance, happiness dances in
The song is appropriately conceived as a tango.
- Bond and the Model
- She’s Got the Look
- Give me your secret (I know nothing about you, you are a complete stranger to me)
Waris forms tender bonds with Dana in a bar.
- Interrogation by civil service officers
- Robinson Crusoe
sung by fake husband O’Sullivan. In an impressive performance, Wari’s bogus husband convinces immigration officials that the marriage is genuine.
- Catwalk/ Flashback
On the catwalk, another model reminds Waris of the witch who circumcised her. Traumatic memories come up again.
- Eight thousand
Waris gives a powerful speech in New York as a special ambassador and informs the public about female circumcision, to which up to 8000 girls fall victim every day, half of whom die during the ritual or its consequences.
Reprises are skillfully interspersed again and again, often linking scenes with the text or melody.
As a gag, Fahrenkrog-Petersen lets his most successful song 99 Luftballons sound in a disco.
I am very peculiar about lyrics, language and expression is extremely important to me. In this passion I have been disappointed by musical texts often enough, no matter if original or translation. The rhyme-you-or-I-eat-you-principle rather often is the godfather of a song.
Different here: Cleverly written, many songs play with the situation, which can always be seen from two sides. A really grandiose and award-winning masterpiece is “Do you really not know it.” The duet of Waris and her friend Marilyn is lyrically beautiful and tingling right from the beginning, but takes a shocking turn from Waris mouth.
Wüstenblume Musical Band
Typical band line-up (keyboard, guitar, bass, percussion) meets traditional string quartet, creating a very unique sound that varies, but always sounds as if they are one piece. A lot of work is done by the rhythm instruments, which always concisely reproduce the beat and mood of the song. Perfectly orchestrated (Alberto Mompellio) and arranged (Koen Schoots) this results in a mixture that allows a lot of variation, performed by excellent musicians (musical direction: Christoph Bönecker) and is thus a pleasure for the ears.
Only the final sound mix was not perfect. The instruments are set too loud in relation to the vocals, so that some performers were very difficult to understand. The sound engineering might have to improve a bit.
Costumes (Claudio Pohle)
The African costumes of the ensemble are most striking right from the beginning. These are obviously the colourful everyday clothes of Somali women.
In the western world, too, everyday clothes dominate, varying according to the situation and ranging from youthful disco clothes to suits worn by business travellers on planes. Everything is authentically represented, with great attention to detail the three areas Africa, London and catwalk are represented discreetly and unobtrusively.
Stage Design (Christopher Barreca)/ Visual Impression
Here we go. There are many different locations in the story, and each of them is recreated in a realistic way. The resulting battle of material however is nevertheless undistracting. Two large wall elements that can be moved from left and right to the middle of the stage separate living rooms from each other and houses from the street. In addition, there is a translucent screen in the foreground that spans the entire stage. It is used for video projections (Austin Switser): it lets rain fall and the sun shine (light: Michael Grundner), desert flowers begin to bloom across the entire width of the stage.
In addition, a long piece of canvas in the middle of the stage is often used, as a tent or canopy.
The clou of the production are countless small elements, which hint at certain locations without letting them develop in their entirety. During Wari’s flight to London, two airplane chairs are enough to hint at the plane, the ensemble does the rest: everyone carries their suitcases, line up in two rows. They pretend to put their suitcases on the top shelf, only to put them back on the floor and sit on them.
A door and a washbasin held by a dancer are enough to locate a dialogue between Marilyn and Waris on the toilet in the middle of the disco scene.
The boards carried by construction workers become a wall of Waris sister’s house in no time. The whole ensemble is constantly busy creating sceneries and places.
Excitingly, this happens quickly but without hectic, often the reconstruction is integrated into a choreography. Every move is well thought-out, clever and yet thoroughly unobtrusive. This original and imaginative way of stage design is based on narrative music theatre in the style of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It brings the whole story into a strong narrative flow that literally carries you along and prevents any holes from appearing.
But most impressive is Wari’s appearance, respectively her actress Kerry Jean. In one scene, photos of her are projected onto the background in huge scale. It is the scene in which she expresses her disruption between cultures. Her fine, noble facial features, yet marked by an eventful life, appear sometimes lighter against a dark background, sometimes blacker against a lighter background. What is Waris? A black woman in the white world? A woman who is increasingly turning to white culture against the background of her African roots? These pictures are so beautifully and absolutely professionally made, they fit so perfectly into the scene and the size of these pictures is so monumental that it left a very strong impression on me.
With the size, an already strong scene is made even more impressive at the end: Wari’s speech at the United Nations is transferred to the big screen, larger than life, you can watch her make an emotional appeal to mankind not to turn a blind eye to the misery of African girls.
Choreography (Jonathan Huor)
The choreography creates pure astonishment. The traditional dances of the Somali skilfully lead into the action. But not only this kind of dancing, which you would expect in such a musical anyway, is present. In the nightmare scene of the little Waris, she is surrounded by the five camels that her future husband is willing to pay. Five members of the ensemble with stylized camel heads and legs move around the frightened child in a threatening, somewhat robot-like manner. A fascination!
The opening scene of the act two is particularly captivating from a dancing point of view. Waris stands in the middle, surrounded by African women. During a reprise of Desert Flower, they unfold several strips of fabric on Waris’ dress. Looking at the stage from the front, it already looks great. In addition, a camera films the scenery from above and projects it onto the translucent stage-spanning screen. From above it looks as if Waris in the center is shining like the sun.
At one point she says how lonely she is in London. She lacks the language and the sun. Thoughts of her homeland bring her back to a piece of Africa. At the same time I immediately had associations with the blooming desert flower. This kind of performance was so effective and novel and together with the catchy song it awakened an incredibly sublime and joyful feeling in me.
Several times the performers lapse into slow motion, for example when Waris in Mogadishu is pursued by a whole pack of people after stealing tomatoes at the market. Or when Waris meets Dana in the bar. Time practically stops around her, only she and Dana move at normal speed, all the others slow down their pace almost to a standstill.
Furthermore, these choreographies are always perfectly timed, for example getting to know each other in the bar: every look and every glass lifting is in tune.
The fashion show is also choreographed to perfection, with the four models assuming their prescribed poses to the music.
The narrative idea of the musical (Script: Gil Mehmert)
Perhaps the greatest twist of the musical is that the subject of female genital mutilation is not discussed at all at the beginning. It takes off the burden from the musical, which would have been inevitable, if this event would float over the life story from the beginning. It would cover everything and one would see everything in the consequence of this event. This would set out a predetermined path. One would be much less receptive as a spectator and would thus be less open to the life’s work of this woman which goes beyond that. Just by deliberately omitting this episode, the story has a chance to be perceived as a whole and to do proper justice to Waris Dirie.
In this way, Waris’ personality unfolds as if of its own accord through this clever maneuvering through her life story.
Only little by little the viewer learns about it and what a cut in Waris’ life this has been and what effect it still has. For the first time, the circumcision is mentioned towards the end of the act one, as Waris also first actually finds her way into London in the truest sense of the word.
Time and again, the cultural difference between the African mentality and the western European casual openness leaves a great feeling of powerlessness in Waris. This inner conflict accompanies her for the rest of her life: Marilyn accompanies her to the gynaecologist to get help for complications of her circumcision. There she meets a man from her cultural circle and immediately she gets stuck in the African tradition: “One does not talk about that.”
I cannot find the words to describe how forcefully the musical succeeds in depicting what this woman had to leave behind: first of all physically her home country Africa and then, little by little, the language, the traditions, the ways of thinking she is familiar with. Not to lose oneself in the process, because one has to give oneself up bit by bit, I imagine so hard and painful that this alone would be enough to feel unrestricted admiration for Waris Dirie.
But Waris has not rested on her success. She has also managed to bring this intimate subject of female genital mutilation, which is not talked about, into the public eye. She has given her voice to thousands of helplessly delivered girls, enlightened them and thus saved countless girls from suffering, pain and death.
How much the cruel experience of circumcision still affects her is dramatically shown at the fashion show: African women with clay jugs come to the catwalk in a flashback from left and right and pour blood from the traditional vessels onto the catwalk where Waris was being cheered just a moment ago.
The musical shows this story unvarnished, simply presents it in its purest form, without judging. This is the greatest achievement of the play, that Waris is not worshipped as a superstar, that it is not designed to pay homage to the top model and the UN ambassador. No. It tells her story simply and vividly. The viewer follows this very story and without raised forefinger a la you must appreciate this woman, he is captured by a tremendous admiration for this extraordinary woman.
My only criticism – apart from the sound mix – is the last sentence of the agent. She approaches Waris and says:
“I don’t owe you money. I owe you thanks and respect. I always thought I was a strong woman who could show the girls what’s what. In truth, you are the strong woman.”
I would have preferred it much better if these words had remained unsaid. It’s a clear conclusion, but I don’t like to be let out into the night with a raised forefinger that tells me what to think about what I’ve seen. Everyone, I am sure, really every viewer, has thought the same thing anyway. And if you can draw this conclusion for yourself, then you feel connected to Waris Dirie and her fate in a very special way.
Kerry Jean as Waris
Kerry Jean is visually a force to be reckoned with, because she looks a lot like Waris – at least from a distance (back row). She is graceful in her movements and, what I find remarkable, she has an ultimate model look. It is also remarkable that the photographer took such pictures of her: Kerry carries a natural pride in her gaze, shows a very sublime profile just like Waris and you can see from her face, despite all her beauty, that this person has already experienced a lot. She succeeds in catching the eye, also in her speech at the UN.
Waris is torn up and that’s exactly what Kerry Jean does excellently on stage. The inner conflict gives way more and more to a determination, triggered by a foresight that tells her what has to be done to make the game her own.
Flawlessly she gets the change to an ever clearer and better language.
The viewer observes the development, finely worked out by Jean, of a shy young woman (my story is too small to tell) into a person who, although she still bears her past tangibly, appears determined and allows herself to rest in herself.
Of course Kerry can use her voice perfectly: Sometimes she sings quietly in amazement when she meets Dana, then again she explains painfully to Marilyn the pain of circumcision. She takes every emotion very subtly, because revealing feelings is not part of the tradition of African education. Kerry Jean wears this massive piece without any effort.
Naomi Simmonds as young Waris
Just recently seen at the Open Air Theatre Augsburg as one of the three soulgirls, I was especially happy that this voice gets such a chance!
Naomi Simmonds convinced me the most of all great performers. She brings such a wonderful naturalness to the stage, one takes away the youth from her immediately. She defies the pain on the long way, holds herself upright. And is happy like a small child about her first own shoes. A young girl who has to grow up too fast due to circumstances, but who faces up to it and has to carry all feelings like fear and homesickness: Naomi Simmonds is always authentic and present.
Her voice is crystal clear and effortlessly drowns out the loud band, her articulation is flawless.
Dionne Wudu as Marilyn
Desert Flower is Waris’ story. Marilyn has a firm place in it, clearly emerging, but still remaining in the background as part of the path Waris is following.
Cast with Dionne Wudu, I was very curious. I saw her as Mary Magdalene at the Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich, and she convinced me.
She masters her role here perfectly. Suddenly she’s just there, in a very likeable way, and takes care of the strange young woman very selflessly. She is lively, self-confident, colourful and a little bit crazy and yet somehow wonderfully normal. In addition, without fear of contact with the foreign culture. She manages to set the right counterpoint: On the one hand Waris, the African girl from a very closed cultural circle, on the other hand Marilyn as a typical representative of an open London society.
She puts the same way she plays Marilyn into her voice: sometimes vivid and light, sometimes sensitive and reserved. A wonderful performance, very balanced and natural.
Susanna Panzner as Veronica
Agency director Veronica initially appears very clichéd: Hairdo, costume, the condescending manner. But then this woman influences the rest of the events in an unusual way: Veronica breaks through to Waris. And not only in a figurative sense: she also finds her way into Waris’ life figuratively, sitting in Waris’ bedroom and talking to her. A very clever scene, because it is an allegory: until this moment only Marilyn has entered this bedroom, just as Marilyn is the only one to whom Waris entrusts all truths and by whom she lets herself be guided. Finally, however, she also confides in Veronica’s guidance, gives her faith and can then overcome herself to the photographs.
Susanna Panzner shows a sparkling portrayal of the agency’s director. She tries to take care of Waris, of course, because of the value the girl will have for her, but she still finds a personal connection to her and tries to harden Waris a little. Great cast, because Susanna Panzner plays her role refreshingly and a little self-ironically, sometimes she rolls her office chair halfway across the stage to the telephone and softened the image of an agency boss bitch to a likeable person.
It would be too much to discuss each member of the ensemble individually. All of them master not just one, but several roles at once. For example, Cedric Lee Bradley as a loving, but tough father, who then endows the ambassador uncle with similar ignorance. Or David Rodriguez-Yanez, whom I know very well as a fan of the Vienna musicals, who is neither immediately recognizable in his mask as a groom nor as a haji, but who consistently displays a high level of movement and singing. Also worth mentioning are the female cast members, who conjure up magnificent walks on the catwalk.
The demands in this play are equally high for everyone: constant costume changes, jumping into different roles and the frequent presence on stage are all mastered wonderfully without exception. Everything meshes together, so perfect teamwork was achieved not only behind the scenes but also on stage.
As mentioned above, the voices sound perfectly together when they lay the dense carpet of sound under the solo numbers, creating a goose-bump atmosphere.
Rarely do I give such a warm and explicit recommendation. St. Gallen has done everything right: the authors of the musical Desert Flower have created a musical that can deal sensitively with its serious content, that accompanies the blossoming of a personality in an entertaining and entertaining way and has a long lasting effect. Music, text, stage and actors are absolutely perfect. There is a flawless overall package here and I wish the production Wüstenblume only the very best!
All photos: Dr. Joachim Schlosser Fotografie
Translation: Joachim Schlosser with DeepL.com