Thrusting hips and high stepping kicks are heating up the National Theater for just a few days with Umoja finally in town. Rescheduled due to visa difficulties, the company has resumed its long awaited world tour and is wowing the crowds with exuberant dancing, thrilling gymnastics, soul-stirring vocals and of course, infectious rhythms of the drum.
Drums are the heart and soul of Africa as stated by the Narrator, a gray-headed age-old griot who helps tell the story and provides a context for the various time passages.
What makes this performance so special is the organization of the story line told through the ages with a gritty reality by someone who has lived through it—it’s like being in the presence of history. Carrying himself with the grace of a seasoned elder, the Narrator describes conditions and events with vivid recollection of his own scars he bears.
Like an age-old griot, the Narrator starts the tale of life in the bush, women dancing in celebration and joy, some bare-breasted, open to life, cloaked in tradition, fortified with the strength of legacy. The men jump in with glorious athleticism wearing animal hide loin cloths and fur-wrapped shins. The incessant drumbeat induces vigorous hip gyrations from the dancers who move with the grace of gazelles and ferociousness of the wild. The men tumble and perform handstands and bottoms smack the ground on cue with panache. The women do an amazing arm snake dance that I’ve never before seen in life. The gorgeous vocals fill the air with melodious chants of the distinctive South African chords that one could listen to all day.
The early years of living off of the land are far from idyllic and the Narrator describes the mass migrations to the townships for survival. The scene unfolds with the addition of the pulsating guitars and blaring horn-sections depicting transition to the cities—Soweto and Johannesburg specifically. Newly arrived workers gawk at the tall building, women offering “companionship” and more, and experience the oppressive police force.
Video projections throughout help depict the settings, profiles and faces of masses, people going about their lives, including running from vicious police attacks. Again, Umoja injects images of reality for doses of history throughout the program in perfect balance with the entertainment. The first act ends with homage to popular singers, including the legendary Miriam Makeba and her “Pata Pata” from the 1960s. Having gyrated to that song in my own early years, I finally understood the sensuality of the piece hearing its source and roots, a total revelation of the translation “touch touch.”
Closes November 8, 2014
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 1 intermission
Two performances left:
Sat, Nov 8 at 2pm and 8pm
Details and Tickets
The second act opens with beautiful gospel renditions of “Amazing Grace” and even “Oh Happy Day,” reflecting the strong spiritual foundation that fortified and sustained people through the hardship of apartheid. Images of freedom-seekers thrilled the audience and pictures of the young fierce Nelson Mandela touched our hearts. Aided by projections, the narrator recounted that the country’s rich natural resources were all totally inaccessible to the native people. Instead, the men had the dangerous jobs of working in the mines, which introduced the “gum boot dance” an originating influence for the Black fraternity “stepping.” Again, watching the movements was eye-opening and revealing in recognizing and appreciating the historical roots and legacy of today’s artistic expressions. Finally, not to be outdone, the music of current youngsters is also included with pounding beats of rap, urban gestures, and staccato rhythms.
A five piece band includes several guitars and a dynamic horn section that help to rock the house with the distinctive South African chords and melodies throughout the show, and the colorful costumes fit the various stages.
The finale is beautifully orchestrated with the ensemble entering in small groups dressed in the attire of the various periods to round out the program and reinforce the images. We were all part of the experience, reinforced by the performers joining us down the aisles, bringing us all into the story. Umoja: the Spirit of Togetherness, is a richly textured, once in a life-time experience that rises above even the toughest technical difficulties or visa complications, as those of us lucky enough to bare witness can attest.
This particular tour is packaged under the theme “Twenty Years of Democracy” and if the schedule proceeds as planned and they play New York in January 5 – 10, I just might have to head up the highway to see them again. Yes, they are that good.
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