UMOJA is the rhythm of South Africa, and that very vibe is heading out to Toronto, Windsor, and Vancouver audiences for the next several months. Having just experienced an incredible performance in Toronto last night, my initial reaction is that from the moment you sit to the time you leave, you feel like you've just been given about 10 cups of coffee from the most spirited cast in the world. The presentation takes you on a journey of music and dance through South Africa's beautiful and repressed past that pays tribute to those that fought for the emancipation of South Africa from the brutal system of the Apartheid (racial segregation). The drums underscore all that happens on stage, which is also how Africans celebrate and pay tribute to the many stages of life. The Venda Snake dance (aka the python dance) in which a number of women link their arms in such a way that when they move in unison, it looks like a snake moving across the stage; it is spectacular. The xylophone, domba drums, marimbas, and garbage cans are taken to a whole new level of speed and excitement. The costumes ranged from gumboots, to intricate bead work, ceremonial shields, and long, elegant dresses worn by the women of the cast which greatly enhanced the charm of the production.
Not only is UMOJA a great lesson of dance and culture, the fact that a variety of African history is exposed to a North American audience makes for a very educational night out. The music takes us through tribal rhythms, but we also see swing dancing at Shebeens (underground music clubs). The music produced in these clubs gave way to the development of modern dance styles in the 1940s and 50s incorporating more traditional African dance to their choreography.
Gospel music was introduced to Africa from several European and American hymns, and UMOJA presents the true message of the gospel; love and togetherness. Africa was able to create its own gospel revival music with combinations of hymns and stories about African life. This segment in the show was particularly beautiful. The cast wore white robes and moved with inspiration as their harmonic voices praised Jesus for getting their beautiful country through tough times and keeping a vibrant smile planted in their song.
So, if you're looking for The Lion King or any preconceived notions of African history, you've got the wrong theatre. UMOJA is captivating in its educational value, originality of performance and cast, and does a better job of getting "UMOJA *musical interlude* the spirit of togetherness" in your head than any commercial ever could. You'll be shaking your hips for weeks to come.
The show runs in Toronto until October 30 at the Elgin Theatre, but for those in Windsor and Vancouver you can plan your attendance accordingly:
November 3-13 - Capitol Theatre - Windsor, ON
November 29-December 31 - Vogue Theatre - Vancouver, BC
For more information please visit www.ysisentertainment.com.
Writer: Lindsay Whitfield