Kasono Mwanza

Great to see this recently in the Minneapolis StarTribune. Seeing Zambians making it in the arts internationally is rare and we wish Kasono the best of luck – he certainly seems to have them talking in Minnesota!

Kasono Mwanza lights up the stage in Chanhassen’s “Hairspray” with an ease that belies his youth and a long journey from his native Zambia. Kasono was talking about how he relates to Seaweed, his character in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ hit production of “Hairspray.”

Actors do this all the time, finding the character within themselves, and Mwanza touched upon many of the conventional comparisons: Seaweed loves music, just like Mwanza; he’s a great dancer who seems to float on his feet; he’s so over racial division and eager to reach out. It was standard stuff, not too profound.

And then Mwanza pointed out something about Seaweed that never even occurred to those of us who have seen his performance. “You know, his father is not mentioned the entire show,” he said. True enough, interesting and curious, although in terms of plot and character, it doesn’t really matter whether Seaweed has a father.

But to Mwanza it does, and he makes this statement over lunch as if he’s sharing an important secret — a key to the character’s animation. He notes that he’s even gone so far as to talk offstage with Aimee K. Bryant, who plays Seaweed’s mother, about “where his dad is, what he’s doing, why he’s not there.”

It matters because Mwanza seems eternally in search of his father, who died when Mwanza was a young boy in Zambia. “It’s very important to know yourself before you try to know a different character,” he said. “Part of me is with him.” Mwanza’s work as Seaweed has forced people to sit up and take notice of this lively young performer. At 23, he carries a natural charisma onstage and seems comfortably at ease, shoulder to shoulder with Chanhassen’s long-established veterans. His body is perfect for dance — lean, light, flexible — and his singing voice penetrates the air. Though he would never put it in terms of competing with other actors, Mwanza effortlessly commands the audience’s attention.

“I have a friend in New York who is an agent and I have never recommended anyone to her,” said director Michael Brindisi. “But I was just composing a letter to her because Kasono is that good. He could go to New York and work right now.” If he should choose that path, it would continue an improbable journey that started in the landlocked African nation of Zambia. Mwanza was 10 when his father, a flight engineer, died, and the family moved to join relatives in Minnesota.

Because of his father’s profession, Mwanza had traveled to other countries but he remembers being stunned when the doors to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport opened and he stepped onto the sidewalk. “I asked my mother why we were going inside a refrigerator,” he recalled. It was not a refrigerator. It was what we call winter. At Marcy Open School in Minneapolis, a teacher heard Mwanza sing and suggested there might be something for him in theater. He pursued his talent at Minneapolis South High School and Youth Performance Company, where he met Kahlil Queen, a versatile performer who also writes and composes music.

“To see an African-American man who could do choreography, compose music, sing and act was a huge inspiration to me,” Mwanza said in his soft-spoken and generous manner. Queen was taken aback when a reporter relayed Mwanza’s gratitude. “I had no idea I had made that sort of impact,” he said. “He had very good natural skills and he took direction well — very observant and fantastic to work with.”

However, it was not until Mwanza attended the University of Minnesota Duluth that he actually took lessons in dance and music. He also got to be good friends with Brindisi’s daughter Cat, who was his housemate. “He has such a big heart for everyone, and I think that does have to do with his rough childhood,” she said. “He doesn’t know much about his dad and I think it’s been his quest to find his dad and figure out why he’s here.”

When he met Cat Brindisi, Mwanza didn’t know that her dad ran Chanhassen or that her mom, Michelle Barber, was a well-known actress and singer. He soon found out and auditioned at Chanhassen after graduation. He was first cast in last fall’s “All Shook Up” and then “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where he played a member of the Sanhedrin. “That role was so heavy,” he said. “Lashing Jesus eight times a week was a growing experience.” Michael Brindisi said that if there’s anything Mwanza needs to work on, it’s building a stage toughness. “He’s a little shy and polite. Even the people in the kitchen tell me he hugs everyone,” Brindisi said. “I want to get a little more teeth and nails out of him on the stage.”

Interestingly, the first thing Mwanza said when asked what Brindisi has taught him was “how to be kind and that there’s no need to be rude. “And he taught me to take care of myself so my performance is fresh for six months.” Mwanza lists several possibilities for his career. New York and California are always beacons for youngsters who can sing, act and dance. Working the cruise-ship entertainment industry or putting together an album of music both appeal to him. Whatever he does, it will include music and dance — gifts that he said guide his destiny and purpose.