By BRUCE DENNILL
Sarafina! / Directed by Nhlanhla Ngema / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Sarafina!, an original South African musical, was a Broadway success story in the late Eighties and has been revived a number of times ahead of this latest re-staging in Johannesburg. It’s adaptation as a big-budget film in 1992 also helped maintain the piece’s relatively high profile.
Parts of the show have aged better than others. The story centres around a class of youngsters at Soweto’s Morris Isaacson High School, from which some of the students involved in the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 left, en route to Orlando Stadium. Those kids were protesting a law that made Afrikaans the primary language in which they were to be educated, and that same spirit of dissent runs through the narrative in Sarafina!, with the titular character (Noxolo Dlamini), who displays clear leadership qualities from the start, becoming increasingly radicalised and, as a result, ever more of a target for the apartheid security services.
Some of the understanding of that story requires a bit of knowledge of the relevant history – and without an explanation beforehand (no programmes were provided on the opening night of this production, so first-timers would have had to either done their own research or have reasonable general knowledge), the facts included in the on-stage action sketch only a basic overview of events.
The focus and major strength of the production remains the cast and band’s collectively sublime skills when it comes to playing the score and responding to the high-energy choreography, which requires a massive amount of fitness, stamina and flair. The music and dancing are the focal point for well over two-thirds of the running time, and it is the talent of the musicians and triple-threat actors that keep the show compelling.
When Sarafina! debuted on Broadway in 1988, it followed the huge international success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, released two years earlier. It was also well-timed in terms of the political groundswell that would see Nelson Mandela released from prison two years later.
In 2019, the enthusiastic forecasting of a better world for black South Africans as the old order fell and a new was set to begin is history rather than aspirational hopefulness. And, problematically, the longed-for utopia is a mess, riddled with corruption and graft. So the optimism and anticipation evident in Sarafina and her classmates is tempered by the knowledge of what has come to pass since then. And the lack of any update in the script means the significance of the characters’ efforts, while a strong reminder that standing up for your convictions can effect positive change, is more metaphorical than directly inspirational.
Dlamini is brilliant, and is supported by passionate performances from a uniformly good cast (though it must be said that some of the actors are rather pushing the limits of believability as high school students in terms of their age). For sustained dynamism, this is a tough musical to top, but the tight focus of its subject matter makes it a less universal offering than other material with similar themes.