Where: Sadler’s Wells, London
Shock jock moments on the stage can reveal a lot about one’s values – are you a conservative or liberal? I fall into the former category as my eyes hip-hopped when a few topless female dancers, draped in intricate beads, opened the production of Umoja.
Beginning with a bang of muscular male dancers beating heavily upon African drums, I initially thought that the female dancers were men with ‘mboobs’ and my reaction was: “Wow, they’re brave to be coming out like that!” It was only when I looked closer and it registered these were women jumping up and down, flailing their arms, and gyrating their waists to the incessant pounding of the rhythms that I just marvelled at their gravity defying boobs.
That aside, Umoja, which means ‘spirit of togetherness’ in Zulu, is a collection of varied South African dance styles and musical influences – drawing upon gumboot dancing from the mines, jive, gospel, and Sophiatown jazz. Umoja has been a roaring success, seen now by over 4 million people worldwide, and is making a return to the West End almost ten years after its debut.
Packed with rich accapella harmonies and impressive zinging of the wooden xylophone, the show is a musical pilgrimage through the evolution of South Africa’s musical genres, but its primary purpose is to entertain and so it lightly glosses over the painful politics that has scarred the country.
Gregory Mkhabela, the narrator, is a Morgan Freeman look-alike with his grey wig and beard as he relays how his innocence was shattered in travelling from the village to Johannesburg for work where he didn’t blink for three days because of what he saw.
And his reaction is understandable when a prostitute bursts on stage flashing glazed baby oil legs in sexy red four inch heels kicking up a storm. This was breathtaking as I worried whether her ankles could take it and if she had insurance. Witty remarks are encapsulated by one liners like hers when asked by a policeman what she was doing cavorting with a younger Gregory. Her reply? “I was showing him the way to church.”
At the opposite spectrum of the waif body image promoted in the West, Umoja is an adrenalin shot of catchy exuberance with thick thighs, jiggling bums, and rounded waists in a carousel of traditional dress, charming 50s attire, and rocking 80s disco gear. The energy never lets up as the audience is treated to snippets inside clubs, mines, church, and on the road. Umoja encapsulates that “music is the rhythm of life” as the narrator says – so catch it and feel that percussion push you out onto the street somersaulting and back flipping all the way home.
Review by Uchenna Izundu
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