An on-stage band, called ‘Inafrika’, from Tanzania, is very much part of the action in Mother Africa, a highly dynamic live experience fusing together music and storytelling through dance. This group of Africans perform with verve and enthusiasm, and it is simply wonderful to see them all enjoying themselves throughout a couple of hours of joyful journeying through Khayelitsha – My Home (the show’s sub-title). Khayelitsha – My Home (the show’s sub-title).
Khayelitsha, for the completely uninitiated (like me), is a ‘township’ in South Africa. I tried to look up precisely what ‘township’ meant, and after coming across descriptions of “fortresses of apartheid control” and miscellaneous legal descriptions, the phrase that stood out, and one that describes this show very well is this: “The townships of South Africa are the places where the heart of the nation beats.”
This is the sort of production that puts to bed the idea that such townships are somewhat stuck behind the rest of the world – consider, for instance, the musical The Book of Mormon, in which a Ugandan village is portrayed as a physical, cultural and intellectual wasteland, albeit to an extent in jest at Western, or at least apparent Mormon, attitudes towards Africa. Here, someone with a smartphone takes a ‘selfie’, and the very first backdrop image the audience is presented with is that of a modern and bustling city with skyscrapers and a well-lit suspension bridge. Even where there were projected images of rundown streets with very basic accommodation, these were soon overtaken by a stage full of construction workers. In this one sense at least, there didn’t seem to be that much difference between the gentrification of parts of Khayelitsha and the gentrification of parts of London.
The styles of music are more contemporary than I would have expected, with some influences from other places: the world truly is a global village. The tune ‘Hot Hot Hot’, which really came from the Caribbean, was given an African twist, as was the case with other songs, though my knowledge of popular music being as scarce as it is, you will have to attend a performance yourself to find out what those are.
A scene with a number of hula hoops (of the plastic variety) practically give Cirque du Soleil a run for their money, as does an almost ridiculous ‘Ladder Act’, in which what the building trade calls a ‘vertical ladder’, (as opposed to a ‘stepladder’, which is climbed at an angle) stands unsupported and unattached, but someone climbs up it anyway. And who knew so much fun could be had watching a performer go through various iterations of unicycling?
There aren’t any ‘fillers’ to cover any massive scene changes or to give the performers breathing space as the performance relentlessly powers on. But it was exhilarating rather than exhausting, and the first half ended up, in hindsight, being a comparative warm-up act in comparison to the second half. It is after the interval when the show comes into its own, with heart-in-mouth moments, including ‘Rolla Rolla’, where layer upon layer of objects were placed on top of one another, only for a performer to stand – eventually – on top of them all.
There are two striking images that stand out above all. One is a backdrop picture of some ladies of Khayelitsha, dressed in T-shirts and jeans. I wouldn’t have been able to tell if they were from Khayelitsha or Kettering, and the only sort of more traditional attire to be seen were the ones worn on stage. The other was a scene called ‘Bounce’, which contained no props or moving parts at all, apart from a weight bench. A performer was spun around, up and down, from side to side, clockwise and counter-clockwise, using a colleague’s leg power.
I could go on, but I mustn’t give it all away. The Book of Mormon does have it right when its Elder Price declares: “Africa is nothing like The Lion King!” There’s some unashamed milking of applause from the audience, which was only happy to oblige on opening night, but, all in all, this is a most enthralling and exuberant show.
Review by Chris Omaweng
wo million people call the Khayelitsha (the Xhosa word for ‘new home’) in South Africa home. The Township is plagued by endless power cuts, but nothing can get in the way of the rhythm and energy.
Dozens of acrobats, dancers, and musicians from seven African nations blend spectacular circus feats, shimmering costumes, and jaw-dropping dance, to bring the pulse of daily life in Khayelitsha to the West End.
26 on stage including 8 band, 2 singers/dancers and other artists.
Portugal Street, London, WC2A 2HT
Tuesday – 7.30pm
Wednesday – 7.30pm
Thursday – 7.30pm
Friday – 7.30pm
Saturday – 2.30pm and 7.30pm
Sunday – 2.00pm and 6.00pm