By Marcina Zaccaria
Africa Umoja boasts exuberant performances from 32 South African performers. The music brings out the pain of the past. The story is told through an older narrator. His life in a pre-and post-Apartheid era is shared. Traditional African dance and acrobatics are celebrated. Spirited performances are by chorus, drum line, solo performers, and trios. From the village to the city, we follow the performers who needed a passport to travel, taking long journeys to Johannesburg by train. Underground gatherings in dance halls are broken up by the police department. We follow the dancers and singers from the tough streets to the exploding skies in the country side.
Founders and Directors Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni aren’t afraid to bring the grit and the gusto of Johannesburg to the stage. Some of the moments look like Broadway performances, while other moments have a variety arts flair, with somersaults and flips. The nightclub sequences include the club sounds of kwaito. Performances are both loud and jubilant. American audiences used to seeing shows like Stomp quickly feel the rhythm of the dance sequences that get audiences off their feet. Meanwhile, scenes of past and present day Africa show on the video screen in the background. The difficulties and the joys of living in South Africa are shared. Brightly colored, flashing lights fill the set. Sides of the stage are filled with gold and blue.
The vision, developed by choreographers and dancers raised in Johannesburg’s Township of Soweto, doesn’t leave out the pain from the struggle from apartheid. Their message of togetherness isn’t trite or short-sighted. Stars Neo Chuene, Penwel Langa, Mbhali Ndlovu, Aphiwe Dumeka, Livhuwani Mawela (Lebo), Nompumelelo Mayiyani (Mpumi), and Kegomoditswe Nhlabathi (Kego) are truly world class performers. Africa Umoja: 20 Years Freedom and Democracy Tour is presented by the International Arts Foundation. It has already performed in South Africa, Australia, Holland Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Nigeria, Israel, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, Cyprus, Baltic States, Denmark, Hong Kong, France, Sweden, Korea, Swaziland, and Dubai.
In the spiritually uplifting gospel sequence, songs like Oh, Happy Day and Paradise Road brought religious gesture, sentiment, and a circle of understanding to Symphony Space. With the new spirit of togetherness, the performers took time to stand out and stand up. They led in songs about sing peace, freedom, and democracy – each having a loud, uncompromising voice in his or her own right. The phrase, “Now is the time for peace and hope,” was resonant and timely. In the end, we go back to where we begin, with traditional drum beats bringing the audience from the pain of the past to the hope of the future.
Africa Umoja: 20 Years Freedom and Democracy Tour opened Jan. 6th and is playing until Jan.9th at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street. Tickets are now on sale and can be purchased on line at www.symphonyspace.org by calling 212.864.5400, or in person at the box office.