The djembe drum is the sacred heartbeat of West Africa, a powerful instrument conveying messages of struggle and liberation for African people. Traditionally used by griots to connect history and culture to younger generations, the djembe is at the center of the Public Theater’s production of “The Visitor” — but in this new musical by the Pulitzer-winning duo behind “Next to Normal,” Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the drum’s historical context goes unacknowledged and its purpose gets corrupted. The musical feels like a slap in the face.
With a book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and direction by Daniel Sullivan, “The Visitor” adapts Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film of the same name. The story follows Walter (David Hyde Pierce), a white college professor who travels to New York to deliver a paper he cowrote and encounters an immigrant couple, Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud), a drummer fronm Syria, and his partner Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), a jewelry designer from Senegal.
Originally, Tarek was to be played by Tony Award winner Ari’el Stachel (“The Band’s Visit”), but just before previews began the actor departed, expressing concern over the show’s Arab-American representation. Seeing the final product, it’s easy to understand why Stachel left: “The Visitor” is a story characterized by white saviorism, cultural appropriation and racial bias.
Throughout the production, the show’s title is often challenged: Who is the visitor? The immigrant couple barely surviving in New York seems like the obvious answer, but their story is often told through a one-dimensional lens; instead the text centers Walter’s experience as a bored educator who has not updated his syllabus in 20 years and can’t keep his students focused in class. He finds a renewed sense of purpose by going out of his way to help this poor couple — after pompously alluding that no one else would do it.
Pierce, famous for his role as Dr. Niles Crane on “Frasier,” remains stiff and unentertaining here. Walter becomes so obsessed with his human discoveries and the small piece of African culture they introduce him to that he forgets about everything else. In a role reversal, Tarek becomes Walter’s teacher, introducing Walter to the djembe, teaching him how to play, encouraging him to practice and offering him a seat at the table during the musical’s most telling song, “Drum Circle.”
“Rhythm is not a thing you find outside of you,” one of the lyrics states, and indeed Walter and the audience remain searching for it throughout the production. Music and storytelling have been the backbone of the African experience, and Africans and their descendants have survived, thrived and resisted injustices with their faith and their shared song. But when Walter’s search leads him to “join the circle,” the results prove disastrous — not for him, but for Tarek, who generously invited Walter into the space in the first place.
The musical finally comes alive during “My Love Is Free,” the single moment when the story shifts its focus solely to Tarek and Zainab. The heartbreaking song unearths the infectious chemistry between the couple that for the rest of the production remains overshadowed by Walter’s problems. Deslorieux delicately and superbly plays the role of a supportive yet cautious girlfriend, and Maksoud does what little he can with a character whose complexity is never fully explored. Lorin Latarro provides pristine choreography and Japhy Weideman sublimely lights the moment.
When the number is over, however, the audience is quickly thrust back into the world of white-savior Walter. The creators seem to have been generously aiming to create a sympathetic portrait of a privileged man’s performative activism. But by centering Walter rather than Tarek and Zainab, the show ends up highlighting the privileged folks who are already coddled more than enough. A story that features important notes on racism and immigrant survival takes a back seat to a script that magnifies the problems of one white man’s mid-life crisis.
In a program note, book writer Kwei-Armah explains that his hope is to focus the human gaze in the direction of advocacy and allyship – but he had the perfect opportunity to enlighten the audience on Tarek and Zainab’s backstory and chose not to. During the musical’s finale, Walter sits alone in front of bars that enclose the immigrant couple. Holding the djembe between his legs, he beats the instrument forcefully with a look of satisfaction that’s almost scary. He is intense and self-absorbed. He has finally found his rhythm, and the drum circle that graciously allowed him entrance is no longer needed.