The celebration of South African music and black spirit breezed its way onstage at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Baltimore this past weekend in “Africa Umoja — The Spirit of Togetherness.”
The show was loud, fast-paced and a colorful and euphoric celebration of the history of indigenous South African music and dance. Throughout the show, there was a constant spectacle of joy, energy and movement, with plenty of vibrant scenery and costume changes to keep you engaged.
Africa Umoja was created by Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni with their dream of helping underprivileged youth in South Africa and keeping their country’s tradition alive. Traveling on the beats of many drums, the show takes its audience through musical genres from the earliest rhythms to the current club sounds of Kwaito, a music genre that emerged in Johannesburg during the 1990s.
I also detected the sounds of vibrant jazz. There were well-choreographed dances, excellent footwork and impressive acapella numbers. The vocals, especially the solos, stood out to me the most during the performance.
Another highlight of the show was the rhythmic Venda snake dance performed by the female dancers in Africa Umoja. Watching them dance fluently to the sounds of drums, like a serpent, and create a chain by holding the forearm of the person in front was a fantastic sight to see. Equally mesmerizing was realizing I was watching in real time dances that have been around for hundreds of years.
There was, of course, the traditional tribal dancing — and the fury of the Traditional Zulu tribal dancing. The cast even added a modern twist of hip-hop flavor into the mix. These were genuinely passionate performances by each actor as they told their story. And Gregory “Slender” Mkhabela, the narrator, brought much charm and helped carry the production to its finale smoothly.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call this show a piece of theater, and if you want one narrative, this is the wrong show for you. Umoja, meaning “the spirit of togetherness,” depicts a series of snapshots of South African life, chiefly from the apartheid era. What it lacks in dialogue, it provides an abundance of song and dance, where each cast member gets a star turn during the shows two-hour run.
What you will see is a lot of energy and grace on stage, and I can say, without a doubt, that I came out of the theater feeling considerably more optimistic than I did when I first came in.
Africa Umoja will play at the Hippodrome until this Sunday. To get your tickets, visit africaumoja.com.