Born as a black person under apartheid, growing up in an extremely poor family with eight siblings, having a baby out of wedlock at age 16 — this is surely a hard life to lead. But South African dancer and choreographer Todd Twala has lived it, and has proved that one can rise above hardship. The musical, “Umoja,” which she co-created and choreographed, is a powerful demonstration of her — and much of South Africa’s — struggle to overcome adversity.
“Umoja,” which will come to Japan in October for the second time following its success here last year, is a musical that chronicles the history of black people in South Africa, as well as their vibrant music and dance.
During the two-hour production, the 37-member cast, including a narrator, singers, dancers and musicians dressed as everything from tribesmen to miners to partygoers at a jazz bar, appear onstage, re-enacting various chapters of South Africa’s history. The spirit of the people from these times is also colorfully conveyed, from the pounding tribal drums to the sensual Venda snake dance by women celebrating their coming of age, to the cheery sound of village girls clanging on tin cans to make music.
“We must always preserve our culture,” Twala said in an interview during her recent trip to Tokyo to promote the show. “My purpose is to make sure that [our cultural tradition] never dies.”
Inevitably, the show touches on some of the troubles in South African history, most notably apartheid. In one scene, a villager who goes to Johannesburg (“the City of Gold”) hoping to make a fortune is taken away by police after being falsely accused of having a fake “pass” (all black South Africans had to carry ID passes around with them back then). Witnessing the man’s arrest, the townspeople sing of their sorrow in a capella, with pained expressions on their faces.
During those times of oppression, music was the only thing that kept people human, Twala said.
“We were [emotionally] drained daily,” she said, speaking of the constant reminders of one’s skin color. “You would be walking in the train station, you would read, ‘No blacks allowed, whites only this side.’ “
Furthermore, under apartheid, the artistic talents of black artists were exploited, Twala said. That has changed, though, since the end of apartheid in 1994, allowing black artists to embrace and freely express their own cultural traditions. “Umoja” — which means “good spirit” in Swahili — was created against such a backdrop.
“[The show is about] the celebration of freedom, of our music, because our music played an important part in our lives during our struggle, because that’s the only way we could get together, the only thing they couldn’t take away from us,” she added. “That’s the biggest part that kept us human.”
Amazingly, the entire cast of “Umoja” hails from underprivileged communities in South Africa. Coming from Soweto, a township in the suburbs of Johannesburg, Twala wanted to create opportunities for kids to experience what she has achieved, she said.
“[They are] just ordinary kids from communities,” Twala said. “When they started, they were like ordinary people like you and me. . . . But today, they are stars.”
Since its successful debut at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in November 2001, “Umoja” has captivated audiences across the globe, including those in Australia, France, Russia, Singapore and Israel.
What makes the young performers such vibrant messengers of South African spirit? Twala says it’s their genuine yearning for a better, more successful life, which she says she can truly identify with because she, too, has felt that yearning.