Rhythm Is Life
Umoja should be presented with two disclaimers. The first: May cause serious fatigue.
Meaning this 36-member troupe emanates more energy than a hyperactive four-year-old hooked up to an intravenous caffeine drip. And during Wednesday's electric opening-night performance at the Gusman Center, an enthusiastic crowd barely kept up. From tribal snake and shield dances, to shebeen culture and township jive, to contemporary versions of hip-hop and techno, the cast offers a nonstop tour d'horizon of South African music.
And therein lies the need for disclaimer number two: May cause every musical viewed hereafter to induce sleep. For most of us, the word musical conjures images from Grease (yawn) and Annie (snore). With clichéd plot lines and dated, beboppy numbers, these productions can, at best, hope to spark restrained nostalgic foot-tapping. But calling Umoja a two-hour haymaker of voltaic theatrics a musical is about as useful as deeming Cirque du Soleil a circus.
Since the early Nineties, the show's creators lifelong friends Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, who both hail from Johannesburg have worked to develop the artistic abilities of South Africa's street children. Umoja, which literally means "spirit of togetherness," is the product of their performing arts school for disadvantaged children. The show incorporates the electrifying talents of 5 musicians and 31 vocally scorching singer/dancers, all of whom hail from Soweto and its surrounding townships. Led by the elderly narrator Hope Ndaba, who reminisces like a favorite granddad, the cast ranges in age from 17 to 28, and none is professionally trained.
It would be easy to criticize the show's lack of engagement with social issues: Gospel choir members appear to be wearing AIDS ribbons but fail to comment on the issue, and apartheid the opposite of this "spirit of togetherness" by which South Africa was for so long defined is not mentioned at all. But to dwell on the absent is to damn Umoja for not doing what it never set out to do. The point of the show is celebration, and in that department it overflows.
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