By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Those of you who had the opportunity, privilege, and pleasure of seeing the wonderful tour de force called AFRICA UMOJA, can understand why I'm still writing about it. I can't get the music, dance, rhythms out of my head. When you consider that the entire performance, from beginning to end, was totally live and in living color - electrifying and energizing - there are just some things that words just can't describe.
I caught the performance on Friday, January 9, which was, unfortunately the final night of a four-day run at Symphony Space. And what a run it was. Packed house every night - close to standing room only - and the word was just getting out! Four days is entirely too short a run for New York, with 8 million people who need to see this fabulous performance.
"UMOJA" which means "unity or oneness" in Swahili, and is not even part of the South African language, shows that, contrary to popular belief, there are vast areas of unity throughout Africa. In fact, Nelson Mandela may well have brought both the word and the concept back with him after having been forced to flee South Africa during his initial fight for freedom and justice. He was given assylum in Tanzania under then president Julius Nyrere.
AFRICA UMOJA shows the unity of spirit that has endured throughout the entire time South Africa was subjugated to invasion by the Boers and Trekkers, pass laws, apartheid, and many other egregious acts that took away their freedom in their own land; and their resistence and resiliency that finally led to their throwing off the yoke under the same leadership of Nelson Mandela, who, despite 27 years of incarceration never lost his fighting spirit. In fact, a great deal of it is an homage to the sacrifice Mandela made for his people - one song "Long Road to Freedom" is performed in his honor.
AFRICA UMOJA celebrates the 20 years of South Africa's freedom - which came about in large part because of the resistance within South Africa, coupled with the boycotts on the part of the African Diaspora who pressured the US and other governments to withhold trade with South African whites until Mandela was freed and South Africans were no longer under the oppression of white racist laws.
And when I say AFRICA UMOJA is about celebration, that's an understatement! There are no words to adequately describe the overwhelming feeling of pride and euphoria in Symphony Space that night as the audience - predominantly African and African American - were regaled with music, songs, dances, all depicting South African culture - both traditional and contemporary. The narrator chronicled the history of South Africa in a manner that literally transported the audience into a village where men did challenge dances, women did dances of unity; where men and women of the villages did dances of celebration. In fact South Africans (as well as Africa in general) celebrated via dance and song - whether it was a victory, defeat, sorrow, loneliness, children, you name it - there's probably a song and a dance for it!
Traditional clothing, made of sheepskin, leather, feathers, beads and hand made fabric adorned with fine beadwork had many of us trying to find out where to purchase them for ourselves. Hand made traditional instruments: drums, xylophones, and others were on display in the theatre - depicting the craftmanship of traditional South African artisans. The same instruments were being used onstage by the artists.
Dances of strength and energy as the performers leaped across the stages, turning flips in place, hand stands, defying gravity and our imaginations had us in complete and total awe! And the melodic harmonic tones of the voices as they sang the traditional songs left the audience humming as they left the theatre.
The performance, which has been touring the US off and on for the past three years, has only just come to New York City for the first time - and needless to say, four days is definitely not enough. We were only just beginning to whet our appetites for more.
They eye-popping performances of the "Gumboot Dancers," inspired by miners who had learned to adapt to working in diamond mines and developed a series of dances using the containers and the boots they were required to wear to protect their feet was amazing. It reminded those of us who grew up in the South of "hambone" a similar pattern where the performers used their hands to pat out rhythms on their thighs and lower legs.
A great deal of the show reminded me of my own days at Lincoln University, which had a large population of students from South Africa who were then refugees. They would practice the boot dance in the student union during classroom breaks. Many of the songs performed in the stage production were traditional songs they had sung as youths in Soweto, Durban, and Johannesberg. Unfortunately most of them are no longer with us, but those dancers brought them back to life for me.
Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Leta Mbulu, Duma Ndlovu, Mbogeni Ngema and so many others were part of the era that much of AFRICA UMOJA depicts. The melding of South African music with African American music was no accident. We were both simultaneously the most oppressed people on earth in the most urbanized country (South Africa and the United States).
Many members in the audience remarked at how many similarities there were in some of the dances - jitterbug/boogie-woogie in the 40's being one, where the dancers were throwing each other over their shoulders, between their legs, making gigantic leaps into the air, defying gravity. Those were dances of my parents era now being performed on stage in real life. Wow!
In speaking with Sparkie Martin, the promoter who's been working with this production since it hit the US shores, I asked if there was any possibility of bringing it back for a longer run. Something similar to what had to be done once the world discovered Fela and how magical it was. The performance has already toured 26 countries. It's been in DC three times, but just reaching New York. Obviously we want more!! He responded enthusiastically that there is a possibility of bringing it back for a longer engagement, but declined to say specifically when, where, or for how long.
Celebrities in the audience, including actress Ebony Jo-Ann, vocalist Allyson Williams, ticket promoter Kojo Ade, and others were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the performance.
Allyson Williams stated: "What really gets me is that these aren't teeny, scrawny, petite women - they're my size and they're just as agile and flexible! Makes me proud and makes me want to get out there and do some leaps myself!"
Literary agent, Marie Brown commented: "There was so much culture on the stage, that it just wrapped itself around you and made you a part of it!"
Many South African nationals in the audience. seeing the performance for the first time were proud to say: "Yes! We used to do those dances when we were back home!" or "I'm from Durban, and we still have those dances." Some just had tears of pride and joy on their faces, as they watched their fellow South Africans do them proud.
Here's hoping there will be a long running return engagement of this electrifying production - on Broadway, if possible - off if necessary - as long as they bring it back.
Stay Blessed &