Hostels and compounds are apartheid creations regarded as soulless spaces where a black man was put in his place.
Matsemela Manaka accurately portrayed the grim, degrading conditions in Egoli. However, in Umshado, the hostels serve as an inspiration and backdrop to a story of romance, tradition and reconciliation.
Perfectly timed for February - the month of romance and black history - the play is a powerful celebration of the diversity of South African cultures.
Umshado is an African opera that employs a variety of storytelling mediums, such as song, dance, poetry, narration and dialogue. It is an approach that works perfectly for a production that celebrates the complexity, beauty and diversity of black South African traditional music as well as languages.
Pat Mlaba and Hloni Taolana are male and female narrators, while Thabang Nape and Dikeledi Modubu play the lead roles of bride and groom.
Traditional dance styles developed on Jozi’s mine dumps, the gumboot dance of the Bhaca, famous for being night soil collectors in African locations, the famous moves of the Basotho, the high-kicking indlamu style of the Zulus and Tswana traditional dance take centre stage to the sounds of marabi, kwela, maskandi music and jazz.
A five-member band displays extraordinary versatility, with the group’s members navigating effortlessly from one idiom to the next.
The story traces the adventures of Modise Ratladi (Nape), a young Motswana man who undergoes initiation rites to become a man.
He then leaves his ancestral village of Moruleng, Rustenburg, and goes to Pretoria in search of a job. The youngster finds employment in the city and accommodation at Denneboom hostel in Mamelodi.
The story takes an interesting twist when he meets and falls in love with a Zulu beauty Thokozile Shozi (Modubu). When a fellow hostel dweller and friend, Simphiwe Sikhakhane (played by himself) marries his bride in a church ceremony, Ratladi decides to go the traditional route.
But before the two families can negotiate lobolo and exchange gifts, the tribal differences become an issue that threatens their dream of becoming husband and wife.
The bride’s father is against the marriage as he doesn’t think that a non-Zulu groom is worthy of his daughter, a classic case of Nguni ethnic chauvinism.
But the intolerance and friction are finally resolved when one of the emissaries from the Batswana side brokers the peace.
Producer, playwright and director Bogosi Bolokwe Ratladi explains: “This coming-of-age story aims to preserve and educate the world about African values, and ensure that the historical traditions are honoured.”
Umshado is a song and dance extravaganza for all seasons and reasons.
The diversity of the music and dance styles is matched by the themes it covers - tribalism, heritage, xenophobia, modernity and eventually reconciliation.
The 23-cast production is essentially about romance in a changing world dominated by Western conventions and the importance of keeping African customs alive.
At the same time it touches on gender and class politics in contemporary South Africa. Umshado premiered at The State Theatre in 2009. In 2010, it opened at the Windybrow Theatre, Hillbrow, where it received warm and enthusiastic responses from thrilled audiences.
The magical musical’s evergreen appeal justified its return in 2015 when it was staged at the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State in Bloemfontein.
Two years ago, it returned to The State Theatre in Pretoria.
Now it is the turn of Sowetans to experience its magic.
Ratladi is an actor and dancer by training.
He boasts a rich and extensive resumé with credits on some of the country’s landmark theatre productions by respected Thespians such as Mbongeni Ngema and Gibson Kente.
With stunning choreography by Lennox Sibisi and musical composition by Eddie Mathiba, Umshado will open at the Soweto Theatre tonight for a four-day run.
Performances take place at 8pm.