This week Sadler’s Wells induced the birth of a new generation of African culture admirers. UMOJA is an unforgettable fusion of South African dance and music, which erupts the stage of Peacock Theatre with its “spirit of togetherness”. Dissolving the audience in pure rhythm and movement, the show leaves no choice but rise, in a united impulse of applause, and dance after the final beats of the drums.
UMOJA tells the story of South African music, binded together by comments and explanations from the narrator Hope Ndaba – whose resemblance to Nelson Mandela is hardly unintended. It incorporates African music in all its varying expressions, from tribal dance to YMCA jazz, from gospels to Kwaito. Diluted with comic scenes and anecdotes enacted by the dancers, the show is a light and stunningly spectacular attempt at an account of black South African history, primarily of the Apartheid years. Gumboot dancing of the Johannesburg coalminers and jazz of forbidden shebeens seem to have found their perfect audience in London’s West End. The balanced mixture of dance and singing beams with an extraordinarily powerful energy; few London shows can match it.
…a fully devoted to a reassertion of joy and love of life.
Created by Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, lifetime friends whose fates were united through their professional careers in Ipi Ntobi, the show is an impressive project for the emerging talents. It has provided a great opportunity for ‘unprivileged kids’ to escape the determined route of Sophiatown streets. There is no obvious star of the show, 40 performers have been given the chance for a turn, again praising the ‘togetherness’ of the cast and cultures.
A cynic may suggest that UMOJA – perhaps traditionally for African shows – plays on the audience’s feelings of compassion, recalling ‘hard times’ of apartheid. Yet, although it is quite clear that a considerable percentage of the viewers are guided to the theatre by a desire to express this compassion, I would suggest that in its pulsating passion for music UMOJA is fully devoted to a reassertion of joy and love of life. Perhaps even in a somewhat exaggerated way. Indeed, this extremely positive representation of South African history, of horrors and poverty, family separation and inequality, appeared slightly puzzling to me.
…show represents reality from a white perspective…
Claiming to portray the ‘real Africa’, UMOJA rather creates the realism of a Hollywood movie. Directed at a Western audience the show represents reality from a white perspective, with the joyful singing and dancing of the black population through the decades of apartheid.
Thus, for a viewer aspiring to get a real sense of apartheid years the show doesn’t quite hit the mark; watching plays by Athol Fugard would be a much better option. This one quibble, however, could in no way interfere with the passionate applause and cheerful smiles of an audience unwilling to leave.