During the performance of “Africa Umoja,” the audience is treated to the sights and sounds of South African shebeens — illegal speakeasies under the former Apartheid government — where black men and women who were denied access to mainstream society could drink and dance their cares away, if only temporarily. (Photo: Courtesy of Africa Umoja –www.africaumoja.com)
Hours before the curtain rose Tuesday on the Charlotte performance of “Africa Umoja: the Spirit of Togetherness,” cast members stood in front of the Belk Theatre on North Tryon Street passing out free tickets for some of the best seats in the house. At show time, to fill some of the empty seats, audience members were encouraged to move up to the front rows.
The tepid attendance on opening night may have spoken more to Charlotte’s still-developing cultural taste than it did to the quality of this incredible performance.
Since it began touring in 2000, this South African dance musical has played to rave reviews. It recently completed a 50-day run in South Korea, and Charlotte was specially targeted as a stop for this self-proclaimed “Broadway bound” musical on its way to Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Canada, where its North American tour ends.
Those who did attend Tuesday night delivered spirited applause and cheers in such volume that one might have thought the cast was playing to a packed house.
“Africa Umoja” was created by two determined women — Thembi Nyanden and Todd Twala — childhood classmates who would later tour in the successful 1974 production of “Ipitombi,” which also featured indigenous South African music.
Touting a theme of “togetherness” as implied by the Swahili word “Umoja,” which means “unity,” this show takes the audience on a trip through time to learn about traditional, contemporary and sacred South African music through a variety of vignettes.
In recognition of events in South Africa, the show began with Ernest Kelly of the “Africa Umoja” management team announcing that the show, which has been seen by presidents and kings, wold be dedicated to former South African President Nelson Mandela, who has survived illness recently to celebrate his 95th birthday.
The musical opens with a backdrop of photos and videos of South Africa, as an elder recalls how his country’s music has changed in form but not in function over his lifetime (“Music kept us human”). “Africa Umoja” offers a lineage of the sounds and steps of various ethnic groups, from traditional times in the Zulu countryside to the most modern urban “Kwaito” beats, combining house, rap, hip hop and reggae elements. Homage is paid to popular recording artists Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Brenda Fassie, among others.
The audience was dazzled by the agility of high-stepping warriors, Venda maidens performing the snake dance, mine workers doing their foot stomping gumboot dance, sacred gospel music South African style, and sounds of the shebeens, where black men denied access to mainstream society in the apartheid system could drink away their sorrows if only temporarily.
Vocal work was exceptional and the onstage band rocked through several decades of South African popular music. Colorful costumes and beautiful beadwork provide more coverage for the female performers in the American version of this production than is the case in Europe or back home in traditional South Africa. Some women in the Belk Theatre audience shamelessly screamed when the men onstage displayed their physical agility and prowess through acrobatics and dance moves.
While parts of the performance might represent new excursions into African culture for some, other parts resonate well with an American audience, including a special song dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement paralleled the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. The rendition of “Amazing Grace” was purely moving.
The “Africa Umoja” program guide, which sells for a nominal fee, offers deeper information on the cultural context of the production, fundamentally created to keep young people off the streets.
Twala, who is accompanying the cast on this North American tour, noticed that today’s South African youth were more familiar with the music of Mary J. Blige than their own stellar artists. With money they made on their Ipitombi tour, Nyanden and Twala poured their personal resources into making a difference in the lives of South African youth who showed talent but had no plans in life.
The show continues at the Belk Theatre through Sunday, July 28. For those seeking a unique cultural experience, this show is highly recommended.
For more information about the show, visit the Africa Umoja website at www.umojausatour.com