SARAFINA! The Musical (with book, music, and lyrics by Mbogeni Ngema, additional songs by Hugh Masekela, and musical arrangements by both Ngema and Masekela) was first performed in 1988 and now again brings the empowerment call of the South African youth to the stage at the Artscape Theatre Arena, as presented by the 2018 graduates of The Rainbow Academy.
Opening night the audience was welcomed to the performance of this multi-layered musical with the invitation to experience it to the fullest: ‘You cry if you need to cry. You laugh if you need to laugh.’
As a production, SARAFINA!, indeed captures an array of emotions, and these emotions are brought to the stage through the eyes of vibrant and youthful characters invitingly introduced at the start of Act One.
A mixture of story (through moving monologues) and songs (both heart-breaking and hopeful as perspectives in the telling shifts), this musical takes the audience to Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto where the year 1976 saw 200 000 black students gather to protest the Government decree that Afrikaans be the official language of education.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the youths’ resistance to that oppressive approach to education attracted a strong police and army presence at the school and in Soweto. Gradually the youths’ resistance grew with the realisation that the human rights infringements that had become their daily lives reached further than just the issue of education to also include the fight for human dignity and freedom, ‘not to revenge or to destroy, but to build a future’ for all.
Through the eyes of colourful characters, such as Crocodile, Colgate, Teaspoon, Mistress It's a Pity, and Sarafina herself, the audience experiences how their passion was met with government force and brutality that led to the injury and death of many of South Africa’s youth. Their call to be heard and free, as reflected in the songs of SARAFINA!, still echoes through the calls for education, recognition, and freedom of the youth of today. This call is shared with heart and passion by the talented performers of The Rainbow Academy as they, through their characters, tell of this struggle: From the uprising in 1976 to the dream of the Day of Liberation, while emphasising the legacy of heroes such as Nelson Mandela, and the impact of that all still today.
As Dumisani Dlamin, who originally portrayed the role of Crocodile, has said, SARAFINA! is 'not only an entertainment show, it was a "struggle" piece of art' when it first debuted. And it still remains that today.
Shifting between the tragedy and struggles of the youth who in 1976 took a brave stance against discrimination and rights infringements, this struggle musical gives audiences a glimpse into history through rhythm and song —history as it should be remembered. As the human rights anthems of the characters ring throughout Act One and Two, building up to a strong narrative arc through a series of revelations, it is clear that the central theme of SARAFINA! is a call for unity.
It is difficult to single out one cast member for a standout performance —in fact doing so feels unfair— as this is a production that truly draws on the collective talent and performance power of the ensemble supported by an impressive live band. Their power (much like the story they tell) lies in the unity of their actions.
The minimalistic set and projection of striking historic images provide a moving backdrop to the heartfelt performances of all involved. The finale is an explosive liberation cry, one that reverberates through the spirit of our country still today. It is clear that the gifted young performers of The Rainbow Academy honestly feel the message of the story they are sharing.
SARAFINA! offers audiences a story of heartbreak told through vocal harmonies, while balancing that with a message of hope through unity. The current staging of this iconic musical by the students of The Rainbow Academy is an inspirational theatre experience.
Theatre lovers can see SARAFINA! at the Artscape Theatre Arena until 2 February 2019. Tickets are available through Computicket.