Tuesday, August 23, 2016

IndyFringe16: Journey from Johannesburg "I'm in the Right Place."

IndyFringe never disappoints in its variety of offerings. Sunday we found ourselves at an intimate acoustic concert of songs and storytelling in Journey from Johannesburg by Toby Tobias of New York.


"Journey from Johannesburg is an audio/visual story by songwriter Toby Tobias. It is a solo journey through three continents with Toby's original songs being interspersed with small vignettes about his life growing up in Apartheid South Africa, his life in Jerusalem, Israel, and his settling finally in Northport, New York." (Fringe Program)

Tobias delivers a magnetic stage presence, defying the stripped down production level of this riveting story-song cycle. This is a highly emotional show about how a white man of privilege is conflicted by the way his housekeeper/surrogate mother and all black people were systematically abused, imprisoned, and tortured by the government of the country he loved.  His journey begins in Johannesburg, a land that ignited his musical passions while crushing the lives of his countrymen, to Jerusalem, where he explored his ideals, and eventually takes us to New York, where he discovered his true gifts as a proud American while coming to terms with being a son of South Africa. 

In the audience was local George Huntley. Huntley has lived in Indianapolis for the past eighteen years and spent the first part of his life in Baltimore. When asked what drew him to the show he replied, "Simple. I'm a singer-songwriter. I was thrilled to see this type of show in the program this year." After the show, Huntley shared his experience of the show. Admittedly, this show left us tongue-tied, so it seemed a bit unfair to press Huntley for his thoughts. 

"The struggle for understanding what makes people fearful and hateful...the struggle for peace in life--in the world. We have the same things happening here...the same dynamics, and a big part of the problem is economics. It's a problem here, and it's a problem there. It's the same problem everywhere. It takes courage to find the solution, and talking about it is the first step. As far as [his] music, I really enjoyed hearing the influences of his native South Africa." Thanks, George. Sometimes inspired art is simply beautiful and bewildering. 

Huntley is enjoying his third IndyFringe Theater festival and typically sees three shows per festival, but this year he plans on seeing six. Other than IndyFringe, Huntley's favorite Indy activities are attending Colts and Pacers games. (We've encountered a lot of sports fans here at Indy's largest theater festival, and we think that demonstrates a wide range of interests of our fair citizens!)

Toby Tobias and fan George Huntley have a spirited conversation about writing songs from the heart and personal experiences and the venerable Paul Simon.

After the show we caught up with Tobias in the beer tent for a fascinating conversation on making accessible art through the eyes of social injustice. The key, it turns out, is always leading with the heart.

At age 55, Tobias gave up a lucrative career on Wall Street to pursue music full time. "In the beginning I had to play cover songs to make a living, but I have an excellent band in NYC, and we've been making a lot of headway in finding venues that will feature my original songs. This is when I'm most happy." He finds inspiration in the encouragement of his three adult children. "They make sure I'm walking the walk, and they're my rock."

He is grateful to IndyFringe for giving artists a chance to share their music and experiences. "I don't want to just pontificate from the microphone. I want to take the audience along on a journey."  From fear to frustration to finding solutions, Tobias is passionate about using his music to knock down the walls of fear and hatred. "If we could take those away and understand people's backgrounds, we could learn to love one another. We're all the same--Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Long Island, Indianapolis. We all want the same basic things."

The influence of the Zulu music he heard from the gardeners in his childhood middle class neighborhood is evident in his musical style. Growing up, he felt a connection to America through bootleg recordings of Otis Reding, Rodriguez, and Bob Dylan. The rebellion of American folk singers spoke to an entire generation of beleaguered South Africans who were living under censorship, oppression, and complete isolation from the world. "The things Americans sang about that we weren't even allowed to utter--oh, it was amazing! And now I'm here! I'm an American!"

After many years away from his birthplace, Tobias still feels connected to its very soil and goes back to visit family and high school friends whenever possible. (He left in 1978.) "Johannesburg feels like the Wild West to me. I understand some of the tensions, I really do. It's a violent city, yet it's also vibrant and upbeat. People under forty are living in a different Johannesburg than I experienced. They feel positive about the changes. They are mostly educated and most have good jobs. People over forty, however, feel negative about it and think it's in decline." 

Noting current similarities between the country of his birth and the country of his choosing, he remains positive about both. "I am so happy and proud to be American. This is my place. I love it here. American people as a whole will find our way through this morass. I believe that people will find their way." Certainly his heartfelt yet always hopeful songs will go a long way toward that eventuality. 

We briefly touched on Nelson Mandela's captivity during our conversation. Tobias noted that the outside world was more aware of what was actually happening in South Africa than South Africans were. A political prisoner for twenty-seven years, Mandela never chose bitterness or hatred toward his abusive jailers. Instead he chose peace and forgiveness, eventually being released and rising to the highest office in the land when he was elected President of South Africa in 1994. A few days after he was released from prison in 1990, he was celebrated in a ticker tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan. "I was living in New York then. That was the first time I ever saw Nelson Mandela, and I knew then that I was in the right place" Tobias said triumphantly.

Tobias is a first time Fringe artist, and this is his first visit to Indy. "It's a beautiful town" he said, looking up at the rain clouds that were finally giving way to the sun. "This Fringe festival in particular came highly recommended to me by Rupert Waits." (Waits is the English performer/creator of the popular IndyFringe show Joe's Cafe from IndyFringe 2010.) "It really is amazing what you have here. So much going on in such a small space."

We hope this won't be your last visit to Indy, Toby!

Journey from Johannesburg continues its run at The Phoenix Underground:

Wed 08/24/16 9:00pm
Thu 08/25/16 6:00pm
Fri 08/26/16 7:30pm

Sun 08/28/16 7:30pm

1 comment:

  1. Great article Toby! Very glad you're getting the attention you deserve. Tonight's show should be a good one. Love from us all at BiteMusic limited. Rupert and Leo