Energy of S. Africa explodes on stage

By Claire Lee

South Africa’s ‘Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness’ returns to Seoul for fourth time

  • Published : May 19, 2013 - 20:11
  • Updated : May 19, 2013 - 20:13
Six years after its 2007 Seoul run, South Africa’s iconic musical “Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness” is back in Korea to show off the country’s colorful and explosive culture, deeply linked to its stormy history. 

The musical’s title, “Umoja,” is the Swahili word for “unity.” The show features some 30 young South African performers, many of whom come from impoverished and disadvantaged families. It had its premiere in South Africa in 2000 and had a popular run in the West End in 2001. It has had three previous runs in Seoul, in 2003, 2004, and 2007, respectively. The musical has toured to over 26 countries in the past 12 years.
A scene from “Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness” (Seoul Arts Management)
It offers South African music as well as the history of its people. It starts off with the potent rhythms of the tribal music of South Africa’s indigenous people.

It then takes the viewers to the vibrant streets of Johannesburg when the country was under apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the South African government from 1948 to 1994. In the scene, the young singers, dancers, drummers and marimba players show what it was to go through racism on a daily basis in the city.

The viewers are also taken to a shebeen, an illicit bar where excisable beverages were sold without a license in the past in South Africa, as well as the mines and a cheap hostel where laborers spent much of their time working and drinking.

The musical eventually features relatively modern South Africa, where contemporary Kwaito, a variant of house music featuring traditional African sounds that emerged in Johannesburg during the 1990s, filled clubs and bars. The youngsters, now no longer under apartheid, dance freely and show off their explosive energy.

The musical is known for its music and dance, such as the Jazz of Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg and a legendary black cultural hub destroyed under apartheid; and the gumboot dance, or “gumboots,” a South African dance performed by dancers wearing Wellington boots. The dance ― which requires the dancers to keep stamping on the ground ― is said to have been used as a code to communicate in the mines as miners were not allowed to talk at all while at work.

One of the biggest highlights of the show, according to its local promoters, is the scene where all of the performers, as a choir, sing a Gospel song. The performance is said to be powerful and explosive, especially as the members of the choir walk down to the audience as they sing along.

The show’s co-creators, Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, reportedly are from Soweto, the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa. They hired street youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, who had no acting or singing training, to star in the first run of Umoja. According to local promoters, a number of young performers who participated in the show’s early runs have now become established theater producers and celebrities. Auditions for the show are ongoing.

The Seoul run of “Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness” runs through May 26 at Chungmu Art Hall. It will have separate runs in Incheon, Guri, and Busan from May 28 to June 8. For more information, call (02) 548-4480.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)