Interview: Tangibly reconnecting through the shared space of theatre in South African epic musical, Calling Us Home, world premiere, international version, February 2023, Cape Town

Calling Us Home – world premiere, international version of the South African musical

When: February 15-19, 2023
Company: 26 in cast and live band of eight
Where: Artscape Theatre
Tickets: R190 to R390
Bookings: Computicket or Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695
Direct booking link:

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The much anticipated world premiere season, of the international version of Calling Us Home, the South African musical, is taking place in Cape Town, in the Artscape Theatre from February 15-19, 2023. There are only five performances in this season (yes, five performances, that is it). New York based Peter Flynn is directing a cast of 26 and there is an eight piece live band. The musical, composed and written by South African classically trained musician, Alice Gillham, is produced by Shy Music. Calling Us Home was seeded almost ten years ago by Gilham and has been staged in development iterations. Now, Calling Us Home is ready to fly from Africa and onto the global stage. The cast of young and talented South Africans, also features two artists who are based in New York.  It is a ‘story of love, hope and home’ which is rooted across continents- from Africa to America. In this post-pandemic landscape, it taps into the need for all of us to embrace ‘home’ – whether it be physical and/or emotional – and to transcend the challenges of the present and imagine a future of possibilities. Undeterred by the global pandemic, the producers of this proudly South African musical, continued to develop Calling Us Home for global audiences and their vision is very much about bringing and communing in the shared space of theatre. Director Peter Flynn provides insights:

Taking Calling Us Home to the international stage

How did your involvement come about, as director for Calling Us Home– the international version?

Peter Flynn: I was introduced to Alice [Gillham] over the internet in 2021, since we were still in the midst of the pandemic. A very good friend of mine who had cast for a show in South Africa – NYC casting director Stephanie Yankwitt – arranged the meeting. This led to a few more meetings with Alice where we discussed her play, our creative processes, and her expectations for this new production.

Physically, visibly, tangibly reconnecting through the shared space of theatre

In the 2018 iteration, briefly staged in Cape Town in October of that year, the narrative started in Africa and moved to a port city in America…Everyone had come from ‘somewhere else’. In an interview in 2018, with me, Alice mused that home was the leitmotif: Home as state of mind and home as physical place. Does one stay in a foreign land or return. Does this remain as the thrust of the show or has the narrative shifted? In the post-pandemic time, ‘home’ is a profound theme. Many people are assessing what it means – as a physical and emotional state- and examining where they want to be?

Peter Flynn: With this current production of Calling Us Home we hope to explore the idea of community: Leaving the familiar and finding new friends, creating a found family and what that takes in personal bravery, risk, and perseverance. We hope that these are not only apparent in Alice’s revised script but also in how we are staging this production, with actors constantly onstage, stepping in and out of the story. We want the audience to be aware that the acting company knows we are sharing a space with them.  After such a long moment of isolation during the pandemic, we have this great opportunity to physically, visibly, tangibly reconnect. So how do we bring this into the theatrical experience as we all gather for one of the first times?

Yes, you’ve explained it precisely: Coming out of the pandemic, what do any of us call home? Is it the place we’ve longed to return after so much isolation, or is it a new place, or a new group of people who have become a new source of comfort, affirmation, and identity. 

Alice’s explanation that home is leitmotif is spot on – and even more clear and resonant: is home a state of mind? …a physical place? Do we stay or do we leave? These are very important – and very theatrical questions.

Homeland, exile, return- metaphorical and universal

The central protagonists are Grace – an African princess – fleeing her homeland. Is that specified – where it is on the African continent- that she is fleeing from? Then there is Ivan, an evil drug lord and a street smart construction worker, Rafael. Were these the characters in the 2018 start-up of the musical or has the narrative shifted?

Peter Flynn: Alice has decided to create a fictional/nonspecific country on the continent of Africa for two reasons: to heighten the fable-like quality in which we are telling her story, and to make the events as relatable to anyone around the world. Grace, our African princess and hero; Rafael, our Latino leading man; and Ivan, our gang lord and mob boss all existed in previous iterations of the show.

Imagine or create where you call home

Many people yearn to go somewhere else – to ‘make it’ in New York or London. In South Africa, we are dealing with the fallout from Covid – loadshedding, breakdown of many services and a lot of despair but there is also a great deal of hope, resilience, creativity and fierce determination by people ‘at home’ to work through to better days. We need this musical to inspire us and to nudge us to celebrate the extraordinary talent and humanity in South Africa. It seems to me, that this musical is very much a call-out to embrace Africa, the continent and the future – despite the challenges? Is that correct?

Peter Flynn: Yes, here again you are spot on, Robyn. Our hope In re-envisioning this production Of Calling Us Home is that it is both aspirational: Come find yourself in the story: Imagine or create where you call home – and a celebration of the resilience, creativity, and “fierce determination”, as you say, of both South Africa and the South African theatre community.

Constructing Calling Us Home for the global musical stage

CUH is an epic scale musical – birthed out of Africa – with the vision of playing to global audiences. Here you are as New York based director, working with a mostly South African company. Can you talk about the process of honing the story for the stage – taking it from the start-up staging in 2017/2018 to now – 2023? Has the company of young artists, been instrumental in shaping, the musical? 

Peter Flynn: As mentioned, I came on board as late as 2021, meeting with Alice almost weekly over zoom to go over the story: the script, the score, the lyrics – to sharpen, clarify, and heighten the elements of each. She and I talked through the script very specifically twice over a year and a half. Again, this was all virtual. We weren’t able to ever work in person until rehearsals began. We then started building our creative team: designers, choreographer, resident director, musical director. Here, too, we started meeting regularly over zoom. We even cast the show virtually – watching audition videos and then meeting with potential cast members on zoom to discuss the play and their participation. Months later, we were all in the same room for the first time on the first day of rehearsal. It was a very profound, moving celebration of reconnecting and building musical theatre. The entire cast – to a person – has been essential to making the story clearer, more personal, and hopefully engaging and theatrical.

 Home, love and hope: Míchel Alejandro Castillo (Rafael) and Devonecia Swartz (Grace) in Calling Us Home, international version premiere, Cape Town, February 2023 . Photo: Daniel Rutland Manners. Supplied.
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✳ Images by Daniel Rutland Manners- supplied. Featured image – Peter Flynn in rehearsal, Cape Town. He is directing, Calling Us Home, the international version of the South African musical, by Alice Gilham, which is on in Cape Town, at Artscape, February 2023.