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Daniel the Musical cast mourns actor’s sudden death

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NICOLA MILTZ

“We are in shock,” said a distraught Joe Niemand, the show’s director.

Niemand, a committed Christian, met the SA Jewish Report a few hours after receiving the devastating news last Friday that the talented actor had passed away.

Visibly shaken and bleary eyed, he said he was lost for words.

“One moment Andile was there, skipping like a boxer during warm-ups at rehearsals, and the next moment he was gone. We are heartbroken. It’s going to take a long time to make sense of this,” he said.

An internationally acclaimed performer, Gumbi, 36, best known for his role in Isibaya and for playing Simba in the Broadway and West End hit The Lion King, died last Friday morning at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Gumbi played the lead role of King Nebuchadnezzar (King Nebu) in the Broadway-scale Daniel the Musical, which tells the Hebrew Old Testament story of Daniel with an African spin.

Niemand said that apart from having the talent and the gravitas to handle the challenging role, Gumbi had to answer one question.

“I wanted to know how Andile felt about the state of Israel,” said Niemand, who met Gumbi one week before rehearsals started.

“I invited him to my house because it was important for to me to communicate how unusual this project was. There was no point taking a gift to Israel with people who didn’t love Israel. I told him it was a gripping story of faith, and asked whether he was the right man for the role given that our aim was to show support for Israel.”

“He told me, ‘I’m your man’,” said Niemand, who hired him straight away.

Gumbi, who was born in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, fell ill suddenly on Tuesday 15 October complaining of flu-like symptoms, and was taken to hospital. Early the following morning, his condition deteriorated, he suffered a cardiac arrest, and slipped into a coma.

It was a devastating blow for the 30-strong South African cast and crew who had enjoyed a rousing standing ovation on opening night on 10 October at the Jerusalem Theatre. The non-profit production, which was relying on ticket sales at the box office to break-even, immediately suspended shows and prayed for Gumbi’s speedy recovery.

“The heart behind the show was always a celebration of Africa and Israel, and a way for these artists to show their support,” said Niemand.

Daniel the Musical is a Biblical period piece produced on a massive Broadway-scale. For Niemand, it was more than just a musical, “it was a gift from South Africa to Israel”.

“When G-d says in Genesis 12:3 that those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed, I take this seriously. In South Africa, we have taken a stance against the people of Israel, and I believe through that we have activated G-d’s word against us. If we look at our country right now and everything that’s going on, I think everyone can agree we need the blessing of G-d.

“I believe South Africa is under a curse. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and anti-Semitism curses the world, not only Jewish people,” said Niemand, who plays the role of the older Daniel.

From the start, Daniel the Musical was a wildly ambitious project which faced numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Niemand refused to give up, claiming that G-d had told him to take the musical to Jerusalem as a blessing from South Africa to Israel.

Niemand said he was sitting on the beach in Southbroom when he “felt that G-d spoke to me telling me to make a musical about the story of Daniel”.

He had just recorded an album of songs, one of which, titled G-d of Heaven, his wife told him was perfect for Daniel to sing in the lion’s den.

Niemand contacted the Jerusalem Theatre, which told him that it was booked up until 2021. So, he flew to Israel for two days with a friend and went to the theatre, whose administrator told them that the theatre was undergoing renovation.

“I said to the lady, ‘Hypothetically, if I would take all the risk that your building project would finish by the end of September, could I have October?’ And she said, ‘Hypothetically, yes.’ I just grabbed the ‘yes’ and ran with it.”

With very little time to write a script, conduct auditions, rehearsals, raise funds, and advertise the show, he set to work.

“It’s the Hebrew story of the Book of Daniel, but we wanted to tell it in an African way,” said Niemand. “We went into our culture – the Zulu and Xhosa cultures – and took the rich fabric and colourful soul of Africa and breathed it into the story.

He described it as a two-hour tour de force and musical production of epic proportions.

“I’m really struggling,” he said, “I wanted to stage this in Israel, I took Andile there, and now he isn’t with us anymore.”

As the team of dedicated doctors tried to save the critically ill Gumbi, rabbis and crew members took turns to pray for his speedy recovery.

After a few days, the cast decided with heavy hearts that the show should go on in Gumbi’s honour.

“I took a leap of faith. I don’t understand why this has happened. I believe G-d sent Andile to the most important city in the world to be a part of this journey.

“Every person has a certain number of pages in their book. In the same way G-d sent me to Jerusalem, G-d sent Andile even though it was his final chapter,” he said.

He described Gumbi as a “consummate professional”.

“I was really touched by him, by his humility and talent. To have someone of his calibre on board for this mission to Israel was a true blessing.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies expressed its heartfelt condolences to Gumbi’s family, friends, and the cast of the musical saying, “We have lost a remarkable young talent.”

Gumbi is survived by his wife, Hlengiwe, and three-year-old son.

Details of the memorial service will be released soon.

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