A vibrant South African song and dance show in London's West End.
Preface: Umoja opened at The Shaftsbury Theatre in 2001 but had to close due to complaints by residents about the noise. In June 2002, it reopened at The Queen's Theatre.
The origins of the production date back to the early 1990s, when choreographer Todd Twala and production designer Thembi Nyandeni set up a performing arts school for the youth of disadvantaged communities. In 1999 the pair were offered the opportunity to turn Baobab, their ten-man tribal music group, into a fully-fledged show.
Our guide through a century of African culture is Hope Ndaba, a genial grey haired gentleman with a sly sense of humour. He is ably supported by more than thirty other cast members, who energetically sing and dance their way through the eight segments of this two-act show.
The line is chronological: we begin with tribal drumming and dancing. The highlight here is the Snake Dance, with Jabulile Dube leading the company of women through a marvellous synchronised routine, obviously the forerunner to today's One Man Dance.
Then it's on to the forties and fifties, as people migrated to the cities. A talent competition is held in Durban, with acapella singers and jive dancers. The compere is Collen Mavundhla, who is a mean dancer himself. From here we go to the streets of Johannesburg, and see the arrival of a young musician. He is immediately approached by a prostitute, before being carted off by the police.
The tribal costumes are fabulously colourful, and it's rather sad to see them turning more drab with the passing of time. The more Western they become (the Durban club scene has men wearing suits), the more conventional the yappear.
The second act opens with another highlight: The Gumboot Dance. For those who saw the Gumboots show, this is a welcome reprise, as the men energetically stomp their way around the stage and even have something of a jam session.
The Gospel scene brings the full company on stage for Ama Juba, Siliwelile and Paradise Road, three marvellous songs that really lift the soul. A night at The Club brings us up to date with where South Africa is now, although there may be some who dispute the apparent claim to have invented Hip Hop!
The songs are backed by a five-piece band in which saxophonist Justin Ndhlovu is outstanding. Benjamin Nhassavele adds some authentic township guitar, and is ably supported by a rhythm section of Lucky Thobela (drums), Sipho Ngwane (keyboards) and Bongani Mokhitli (bass).
The finale brings everyone together for a brief reprise of how the music and dance has evolved over the past century. Hope Ndaba leads the company through The Spirit of Togetherness, a message for this and any other age.
The production has proved to be such a success that a second company is now being formed. The current production at The Shaftsbury is there for a limited time only, don't miss out on a spiritually uplifting experience.
© Andrew Winton December 2001.
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