Credit: Hakim Mutlaq

If you were at Symphony Space last week, then you got to experience the captivating, sensual and powerful performance of “Africa Umoja: 20 Years of Freedom and Democracy Tour.” This production, featuring 32 South African dancers, singers, actors and drummers, was outstanding.

The vibe from the beginning of the evening was very powerful, as topless, muscular African men played drums, pounding them so hard that you could feel it in your heart. They definitely got the audience in the packed theater pumped up.

Women in beautiful costumes sang songs in their native tongues and performed riveting native dances. A narrator talked of the South Africa of his youth and what challenges his country had endured. Through his words, the audience learned about the difficulty of South African life under Apartheid—the way that fathers had to leave villages and their families behind to go to the city and make a living; the loneliness that the wives experienced as they lived without their husbands and were the only ones around to witness the growth of their children. The production let everyone know the hardships that Black South Africans experienced, such as having to have a work passport on them at all times when they traveled to the city to find work. It’s so sad to see how Black South African police officers would not hesitate to beat and imprison other Black South Africans. In general, it was sad to see that in a country that was so rich, the native people were so poor and struggling.

This production was the brainchild of Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, choreographers and dancers born and raised in Johannesburg’s township of Soweto. Besides the vibrant, energized choreography witnessed in their phenomenal production, they both also designed the costumes, which were at times dazzling, very sensual and sometimes traditional.

The production lets the audience see the history of South Africa and its people through the use of songs, dancing and drumming. Much of the show was performed in a non-English language. Though I didn’t know what they were saying, I could get the idea of what was being experienced through the introduction that the narrator would give to a song. One that touched me deeply was the song that the wives sang as they stayed in the village, unable to see their husbands for long lengths of time.

Although South Africans went through much, they are also a strong, spirited and passionate people, and those emotions clearly came through as we watched the dazzling, heart-pounding choreography. And as if watching the dancers move so intensely and passionately to the live band that was playing weren’t enough, add to that the passion with which the drummers played and your emotions were easily touched. You could feel the drumming in your heart, blood and soul! The dancers move with such a joy that as you sit in the audience, you feel this sense of joyousness overwhelm you.

Many aspects of life were looked at from decades ago up to today. The audience learned that years ago, Blacks had nowhere to go to unwind, except for shebeens, a type of club where they could dance and hear singers, but the police often raided those establishments. There was a deliberate effort to stop Black South African’s from gathering and relaxing together, but the people found a way despite the authorities.

This production had songs in English that were inspiring, including a fantastic rendition of “Oh Happy Day” and two new songs written to honor the late Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Long Road to Freedom” by Paul Hone and “I Have a Dream” by Allen Simone.

Unfortunately, the performance at Symphony Space was the final performance of a U.S. tour that began Nov. 4 in Washington, D.C. The show was presented by the International Arts Foundation, produced by the South Africa Investment Group and sponsored by the South Africa Department of Arts and Culture and South African Airlines. For a long time to come, I will remember the passion, unwavering strength, incredible dancing prowess, drumming prowess and singing prowess of those 32 performers. I felt wonderful that my daughter shared the experience with me, to hear what the South Africans went through from their own mouths and to see the passion and conviction that they maintained and eventually used to overcome the injustices of Apartheid.