(This is Jerry's review of the original Vancouver production from 2005.)
UMOJA is not a play but a musical “history” of black South Africa, strung along a narrative spoken by Nelson Mandela look-alike Penuel Bhekizitha Ndaba, from pre-colonial days through the late-twentieth century apartheid era to the present. The musical numbers are performed by more than thirty colourfully costumed singers and dancers accompanied by powerful indigenous drumming and a five-piece band (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, bass, and drums).
Although it sometimes feels a little like African exotica contrived for western theatrical tourists, this gorgeous, high-speed, spectacular showcase of beautiful bodies is ultimately irresistible.
The opening scenes from the tribal village have an anthropological feel. To the incessant beat of huge, amplified tom-toms, the women, who come in all shapes and sizes, sing and sway in a tight line. Their green-gloved left arms, seemingly attached to one another, create an undulating, twenty-foot-long snake. Then the super-cut men come screaming in, performing fabulously athletic Zulu warrior dances, leaping and high-kicking like primitive African karate masters. The sequence ends with the ensemble recreating a sexy mating dance.
Most of the rest of the show is set in urban environments or work camps. As the villagers emigrate to the cities and mining towns, costumes and dance styles change accordingly. In one magnificent routine, bare-chested miners perform a remarkable percussive dance, smacking their hands against their gumboots. Another highlight is the emergence of something like South African Bandstand when electric guitars and rock ‘n roll come to the townships.
What remains consistent is the tempo, which is relentlessly up, and the marvelous athleticism. Imagine a half-time cheerleading routine at an American college football game done at three to five times the speed.
An African gospel sequence in the second act provides some contrast as well as a showcase for really beautiful voices. Almost none of the singing is in English but the sentiment is crystal-clear and the harmonies wonderful.
Although the narrator makes many references to the difficulties of life for black people under apartheid, the racial politics of the show are muted. He never mentions white people, and when police brutality is dramatized in one scene, the policeman is black. The tone of UMOJA is entirely positive, in keeping with the meaning of the title, emphasizing the power of music to heal the spirit and bring people together.
The fall theatre season began with the Playhouse’s The Syringa Tree, one white woman’s perspective on South Africa. The spring season will feature a similar angle when the Arts Club premieres Into the Heart of the Sangoma by Ann Mortifee. It’s nice to have the black African perspective here, and even nicer to have it presented with such great positive energy, uplift and skill.