South African Youth Captivate GW Audience

Bokamoso Youth Centre performers visit campus for 11th year of South Africa Project.

South African youths perform at the Betts Theatre on Friday.
February 10, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

Betts Theatre rumbled with excitement on Friday as a group of South African students took the stage for their final number. One performer explained their last song was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. They launched into harmonies, growing more passionate and exuberant. The audience went from clapping in their seats to standing in place—until finally, the energy seemed to burst and the crowd joined the youths onstage to dance for Mr. Mandela.

The performance was part of the George Washington University’s South Africa Project, now in its 11th year. Under the leadership of Professor of Theatre Leslie Jacobson, the program brought 12 students and three staff members from South Africa’s Bokamoso Youth Centre to campus for a week of academic sessions, theater workshops and exchanges with GW students, leading up to two performances for the university community.
“The classes the students attended covered a wide range of subjects. I felt this year's schedule, while very busy, was the most diverse and the most stimulating for our visitors,” Ms. Jacobson said.
The Bokamoso Youth Centre is based in Winterveldt, a township in South Africa that was created under the apartheid government in the 1950s. Today, Winterveldt is challenged by unemployment, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and lack of education opportunities. The Bokamoso Youth Centre works to bring hope to young people in the community through a variety of educational and recreational programs.
The organization visits schools around South Africa to attract teenagers and young adults. That’s how longtime friends Lucas Balangile and Josiah Mlambo first heard about the program.
“Someone visited our high school to tell us about Bokamoso. I didn’t know what it was about, so one day I decided to take a walk to see what was happening. I enjoyed my day there and decided to go back,” Mr. Mlambo said.
The center holds annual auditions for a performance tour in Washington, D.C. Young people between the ages of 18 to 24 were selected this year to showcase traditional songs, dances, poems and an original play written by Ms. Jacobson and Bokamoso Youth Foundation President Roy Barber while in residency in South Africa.
Ms. Jacobson explained the play, “What Is a Child,” came out of many discussion and theatre improvisation sessions she had with the Bokamoso youths. The short drama explores how modern day communities deal with sex and the risk of teen pregnancies.
“The issues surrounding teen pregnancy, and the pressures young men and women from the U.S. and South Africa feel concerning sexual intimacy, are challenges in both countries,” Ms. Jacobson said.
“We’ve been doing different plays every year, but this one was more integrated and the content of the play was relevant to all communities in South Africa and America,” added Bokamoso Youth Center Drama Director Thapelo Mashaba. 
Between Feb. 3 and 8, the Bokamoso performers immersed themselves in activities like a class on African diaspora, a modern dance lesson and a graduate design session. They also attended an interactive workshop with GW students on sexual consent and respect, cosponsored by the Global Women’s Institute. Ten GW students hosted the Bokamoso youths in their dorm rooms. 
The itinerary also included plenty of time for rehearsals. For most of the youths, performing comes naturally. Mr. Balangile said he has been dancing and singing in his community from a young age. However, others were a little nervous.
“We dance for schools in South Africa and other organizations, but we’re not used to dancing for a huge crowd. Here, it feels like we are moving to the next step,” said Thembi Silvia Mooketsi. 
While they may have been apprehensive, the South African performers seemed right at home when it was showtime. “What Is a Child” elicited laughs and deep emotions from the crowd, and their traditional Zulu dance received a standing ovation.
The Bokamoso performers also collaborated with GW gospel choir the Voice on Friday and a cappella group the Troubadours on Saturday. They sang both African and English melodies—an exchange sophomore and member of the Voice Adwoa Annor said she appreciated.
“It was a great culture combination—it really helped me understand what the Bokamoso Youth Centre stands for and what they do in South Africa,” she said.
The highlight for the Bokamoso performers came when the audience joined in on the dancing at the end of the show.
“I felt special, to be honest. I felt like everyone loved us. Everyone was there to support us—it was really awesome,” Ms. Mooketsi said
Ms. Jacobson said she hoped the students were able to expand their view of the world while inspiring others by sharing their traditions.
“Having real and significant interactions with people from other cultures enables us to understand ourselves better as well as others. It helps us to see and appreciate the uncommon ground as well as the common ground we all share,” she said.