Last weekend I was invited to attend a show called ‘Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness‘ at Joburg’s Victory Theatre in Houghton Estate. I’d heard it was a great show and had been invited more than once before, but somehow always found an excuse to miss it.
I’ve now gone to the show on two consecutive Saturday nights. I can’t believe it took me so long. It’s one of this city’s best-kept secrets.
The concept of Umoja (which means ‘Unity’ in Swahili) is simple — a celebration of black South African music and dance over course of the country’s history. The show’s founders, veteran performers Thembi Nyandeni and Todd Twala, created Umoja as a way of empowering underprivileged kids to follow their dreams. The cast members are recruited from all over South Africa; many come from rural areas and have little or no formal training. They are gifted singers, dancers, and musicians for whom music and dance are a natural part of life.
African music begins and ends with the drum. So does Umoja.
My first time at Umoja last Saturday night was like a religious experience. When the lights came up and the Zulu tribal dancing began, I was instantly enchanted. I’ve written before about my love of African singing and dancing; Zulu dance is my favorite. I’ll show you some photos but photography doesn’t do it justice. You need to be there in person to see and feel the intensity, concentration, athleticism, and pure joy that emanates from the dancers.
Sorry for the blurriness and weird color but I think it conveys the energy. The most impressive part of male tribal Zulu dancing is the kicking, but I wasn’t about to put a camera in front of my face during the kicks. That would mean missing a few precious milliseconds.
That first Saturday, I went to see Umoja with my friend Luthuli and his family. Luthuli’s elderly father, who is originally from Zimbabwe but lives in the UK now, is currently visiting South Africa and came along to the show. He is confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty talking.
I turned to look at Luthuli’s dad partway through the show. He had tears rolling down his cheeks, and the look of happiness on his face made me burst into tears along with him.
The following Saturday I went to Umoja again. I brought Horst, my landlord, and Walter, Lucky‘s brother. And this time I brought my camera.
Stop snickering, boys. Bare-breasted dancing is a traditional part of Zulu culture.
A skin-prickling dance portraying the trance of a sangoma, or traditional healer. The dance is performed under multi-colored strobe lights.
A scene depicting music and dance in mid-20th-century Johannesburg.
As we walked to the lobby during intermission, I turned to Walter and asked what he thought. It was Walter’s first time at a theatre performance.
Walter was smiling from ear to ear. ‘I’m still shaking!’ he exclaimed.
‘And it’s not even over yet,” I said.
‘The show is only half over,’ I told him.
Walter’s smile took over his entire face.
Dancing in South Africa’s mines.
South African gospel music.
The hip-hop era.
The Umoja curtain call lasts for about ten minutes. The audience doesn’t want the show to end and neither does the cast.
The moment the show ended, the cast returned to the stage and invited the entire audience to come up and take pictures with them. Soon the stage was a joyful melee of teenagers, families, and cast members singing and dancing in small groups. I waded into the fray with Walter.
Cast members posing.
This photo is badly composed but I love it.
I did an entire photo-shoot with Walter, taking his picture with as many cast members as possible. Here he is with the Umoja narrator. Lucky is SO jealous.
The woman in the black beanie and the Adidas jacket is Thembi Nyandeni, the show’s creator.
Even though the cast had been singing and dancing their asses off for the last two hours, they were thrilled to continue performing for us indefinitely.
Head buzzing, I finally climbed off the stage and chatted with Thembiso, who I believe is the show’s director. He thanked me for coming and asked if I’d enjoyed myself. I told him everything was fantastic.
‘Do you do this after every show?” I asked, motioning toward the still-rocking stage. I couldn’t remember it happening last week. (Before the show, I had told Luthuli — who has some influence at the Victory Theatre — that I was planning to blog about the show and asked if it might be possible to take a photo of the cast at the end. But it didn’t occur to me that this incredible display of enthusiasm had stemmed from my request.)
“No!” Thembiso said. “We did this for you.”
Tickets to Umoja cost between R80 and R200 and are available on Computicket. Or call the Victory Theatre at 011 728 9603. The show currently plays every Friday and Saturday. There is also a restaurant at the theatre where you can have dinner and drinks before or after the show.
Just go, please.