“Woza,” it means “life,” “rise up,” “come on!” It’s also the title of a play in District Six, Cape Town. The production lives up to its name in more ways than one. I had the privilege of going to see the play with my students this week. The play is housed in an old church, one of the buildings remaining from the time of apartheid, when the government had tried to raze everything in the District Six area to the ground. District Six, with its blend of cultures, represented everything the policy of the time stood against. On Monday evening, the main room of the church had tables arranged on different levels on the three sides surrounding the floor that would be the stage.
Beforehand, we were treated to a traditional South African meal. Starters included samoosas and small squares of fried vetkoek accompanied by snoek pate and apricot jam. This was followed by bobotie, a meaty stew. Mine was made with soya instead. The best part was dessert: a dash of creamy Ultramel custard with a tinned peach and a generous slice of melktert. The British Activities Coordinator, South African receptionist and Danish Residence Advisor sharing my table laughed at my enthusiasm as they sipped their wine.
Shortly afterwards, Brian, one of the founders of the WOZA project appeared. He welcomed us and explained that we would soon be joined by the rest of the audience, significantly younger than we were. He’d invited us early in order to enjoy some peace and quiet before the youngsters arrived. A former teacher in underprivileged schools, Brian and his partner, Andrew, started the project in 2006. From then on, they have been training youth from all walks of life in Cape Town in dance and drama, and giving them the opportunity to perform. All the proceeds from the performances of the play Woza Cape Town have gone back into these youth education programmes.?
The first stage of the performance had audience members go on stage to learn the gumboot dance, the powerful form of protest used by miners during the apartheid era. We stomped, hit our shins, slapped our ankles. By the end, we were laughing and breathless. As we returned to our seats, the lights dimmed and a hush came over the room as the cast moved silently into position on the floor in front of us.?
They began to sing. I was struck by the power of their voices, captivated by the energy of their dance. The first scene told the story of their own rehearsal, the woman in charge giving up as she felt her trainees weren’t up to snuff. The main characters emerged: a young black man from Khayelitsha, a young coloured man from Mitchell’s Plain, and a young white man from Rondebosch. Three worlds, one city. Although the white guy seemed to have it all, he was struggling with the perceived lack of love within his family. We witnessed the coloured guy’s pain at his father’s desertion, and the black guy’s frustration at the alcoholism rife in his community. Although from completely different backgrounds, the three of them come together in their sharing of the “African Dream,” expressed in a haunting song that evokes the poignancy of the dream of a united South Africa, where everyone works together to create a peaceful country. The tangible energy, passion and raw talent of the cast continued to be demonstrated through various other songs and dances, varying in intensity. It seemed impossible for anyone watching the play not to be drawn into the world portrayed, and as a result also stand behind their dream. At the end, I stood up and cheered with the rest of the audience, celebrating not only the first-class performance of the cast, but the hope of a WOZA South Africa.