‘Africa Umoja’ revue celebrates South African culture

The vision of South Africa seen in the music and dance revue Africa Umoja is mostly a joyful and exuberant one that has helped the show play successfully at home and internationally for 14 years.

But the show’s roots lie in the bitterness of apartheid-era South Africa. Umoja’s creators, Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandemi, escaped from the segregated Johannesburg slums using their ability to perform. They created Africa Umoja, and the program that trains its cast, as a vehicle for new generations of South African talent and to celebrate the native culture that has animated and inspired them and their countrymen. Umoja is a Swahili word meaning “spirit of togetherness” — which is also the show’s subtitle.

“Whatever you do, you always have to remember where you come from,” Twala, 59, said from a rehearsal in Johannesburg, She was preparing for the show’s second U.S. tour, which on Tuesday begins a five-day run at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables.

Twala has vivid memories of growing up amid the bitter poverty and racist oppression blacks endured in apartheid-era South Africa. Her factory worker father supported his wife and 10 children in the slum township of Soweto on a salary of just $12 a week. Several of her siblings died for lack of medical care. Her single black school uniform turned green from two years of washing. At 16, Twala, a bright young woman at the head of her class, had a baby and dropped out of school, making her prospects even more dire.

The one hopeful spot was her talent. “We grew up dancing and singing. It was part of our lives,” she says. “I was one of the best dancers in the community. I could sing, I was pretty. I began to use my talent, my skill, to empower myself.”

In 1975 her ability and determination earned Twala, 19, a spot in a music and dance revue heading to London. Upon arriving, she was both disoriented and exhilarated at how different life was for blacks outside South Africa.

“Wooooo! I can’t describe it — it was shocking and scary, and at the same time it was happy,” Twala says. “In my hotel room a white lady was cleaning my room! I was so shocked to be treated like a proper person, a normal human being and not a sub-human. I could go where I want, talk to white people without a problem.”

Twala got another pleasant surprise when she joined Ipi Thombi, a popular South African show also playing London. In the cast she discovered her childhood friend Nyandeni, whom she hadn’t seen since her early teens, when Nyandeni protected Twala from a gang of school bullies. “We hugged and vowed we would never part again,” Twala says.

The women spent years touring the world with Ipi Thombi, returning to Johannesburg in 1982. The country was in the midst of the turmoil that would lead to the dissolution of the apartheid government and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Twala and her partner, empowered by their experiences abroad, began teaching dance and music classes to the many children on Johannesburg’s streets. As their savings ran out, they took performing jobs to underwrite their efforts.

“I was very politically inclined — and now I had money,” Twala says. “There were so many street kids, sniffing glue, some of them were prostitutes. I said ‘what can we do to help?’ Me and Thembi were popular, we were in the papers, so kids would approach me and say I want to do something with my life. We were trying to take as many kids off the street as possible.”

By the late ’90s, their increasingly accomplished students had progressed from doing amateur showcases to performing abroad, and Twala and Nyandeni came up with the idea of putting together a production that would support them and their school. A music show on TV where a young contestant couldn’t name a song by a popular South African musician gave Twala the idea for their show. “I said ‘Thembi, South African kids don’t know about South African musicians. Let’s celebrate our music. Where do we come from, how did our music evolve from tribal times to where it is today?’”

Africa Umoja made its debut in 2000 and quickly became a hit. It is now a popular attraction in Johannesburg, with a second company that tours regularly. Reviews of performances in England in 2001 and Canada in 2005 enthusiastically praised the show’s energy, vitality and warmth, and the talent of its performers.

Promoter Ernest Kelly, hooked when he saw Umoja three years ago, launched the show’s first U.S. tour in his native New Orleans in 2013. An enthusiastic South Africa booster who has been arranging business and cultural exchanges since he first visited the country in 1997, Kelly has also produced U.S. tours by South African musicians Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Lucky Dube. The South African government is helping sponsor the Umoja tour as part of the country’s 20 Years of Freedom and Democracy campaign.

Kelly hopes Umoja will inspire more Americans to visit and invest in South Africa, whether because they connect with its struggle or are drawn to its life and culture.

“The whites I take say ‘now I get it — it’s more than wine tours and safaris,’” Kelly says. “For African-Americans, there’s a sense of kinship.” He says that interest goes both ways. “South Africans relate to African-Americans. They have jazz, blues, all those things there because they want everything American.”

Umoja begins with traditional tribal dances and continues through kwaito, a South African version of hip-hop and club music. One of Twala’s favorite numbers is a traditional dance called Venda Domba that celebrates girls growing into women with curving, snake-like movements. Another portrays a traditional spiritual leader and healer called a sangoma. “It’s not a witch doctor — we were never witches,” Twala says. “A sangoma communicates with your ancestors and between you and your god. It is part of our life that you cannot discard.”

There are scenes portraying jazz clubs, gospel music and church services, and a gumboot dance — the rhythmic, stomping dance invented by miners living under harsh, lonely conditions. “On Sundays they would gather around, thinking of their villages, their families, singing their songs, creating their own sounds and rhythms,” Twala says. “Consoling themselves, keeping themselves happy before they went back down into the earth.”

Since launching Africa Umoja, Twala has seen performers she has trained go on to shows like The Lion King, start their own productions and find professional success. One cast member has been with her since 1997. But most have no memory of the kinds of things their teacher endured.

“I turned to Thembi the other day and said ‘people start good things but they don’t have patience,’” she says. “We never gave up. We had many challenges. People took at me and tell me “you’re so lucky.” It’s not luck — it’s hard work.”

“I tell these kids I hope you listen because I’m not going to live forever. But this Umoja won’t die as long as some of you take it and run with it.”

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