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Educating through art

28 Nov 2006

I’m eagerly walking up three flights of stairs after catching a glimpse of Thembi Nyandeni.

After seeing the Umoja, the captivating, eye stimulating, well-compiled theatrical masterpiece, it’s a great honor to meet up with one of its creators.  In addition to being co-creator, Thembi is also the production and costume designer of Umoja, the hit play which has already traveled to major theaters across the world.

Umoja takes us on a journey, from past to present, detailing through dance and different musical forms, the oppression faced by black South Africans, the culture, and the unconquerable spirit of the Black people over the past centuries.  We’re on our way to the green room of the Elgin Winter Theatre for the interview.  The first thing that catches my attention is Thembi Nyandeni’s energy and youthful appearance.  I feel drawn to her vibrant spirit. I turn and notice the serious look on her face and it momentarily intimidates me.  My voice cracks as I nervously introduce myself, but then she smiles and then sits down making me comfortable.  I sense she’s been through the interview process a million times and she’s probably waiting for me to ask standard interview questions. But I don’t want this to be a standard interview. I want it to be a discussion.  I want her to speak the truth, to tell people how she feels, tell us what Umoja means to her, tell us why she needed to tell her story in the first place. I want her to deliver her message.

Actor, producer Thembi Nyandeni.

What is the message of Umoja?

Umoja is about self-discovery and spirituality.  It’s not just about South African history. It’s about black culture from around the world.  I want people to realize that Umoja is about empowering ourselves, connecting with who we are as a people by embracing our culture and understanding our past. Umoja is a representation and is “the spirit of togetherness” and all audience members can achieve that sense of togetherness. If we can gain this love for ourselves, and share that love with each other, black or white we’ll make a better place to live for our children, their children and ourselves.

February is black history month and we all strive to educate ourselves about our culture, and our past, is Umoja a good way to educate people about the history of the black culture and experience in South Africa ?

With Umoja we entertain and educate, this is “edutainment.” Without Umoja no one would’ve listened to us, or discovered our story.   People are reluctant to pick up a book and read.  And I couldn’t just write a book, who would read a book from a black girl who wasn’t formally educated?  I didn’t go to school to get a degree this is the only method I could use to get people to listen to what I had to say.

Would you say theatre is the most effective way to educate people about black history then?

Yes, that’s why I call it edutainment, it’s the most captivating way, that’s why we travel the world, and we want to share what we have all gained.  So many black people and children are angry and not sure why. If they had someone to talk to and their anger could be fueled into self-empowerment, if they could tell others why they are angry and talk to someone they would heal and there would be no need for violent outbreaks.

The Vibrant, colorful and bright costumes of Umoja seduce the eye.  The songs, the drums, the dances they are all breathtaking but do you think that it distracts us from the educational component?

The costumes tell the same story, the colors, the music, the narrative, everyone can receive the same message through different methods.  The lesson is gained through the journey and all these elements are used to illustrate the passage of black South Africans, from colonialism to apartheid.

Since the majority of Umoja’s cast consists of young people how does being a cast member of Umoja help them and would getting youths in Toronto to participate in theater possibly reduce the issues of youth violence?

Everything in the black community starts with the parents, but because the parents are still healing or need healing, the kids are left to fend for themselves and that’s when they turn to violence.  It’s because they are angry and frustrated of their situation and feel helpless.  They feel there is no one there for them to talk to.  I was fortunate growing up that I could speak to my parents about anything.  Parents don’t educate their kids enough about who they are; they grow up unfamiliar with their culture and history.  We can’t have other people educating our children. We visit schools in order to educate youths.  The play has taught the youths taking part to educate others and show them there is another way. We encourage youths to help their parents, their peers and stay humble and give back to their communities. Since Umoja consists of mostly youths it is merely their voice telling their history, their oppression in which we as a people still face, it gives them a platform to be heard.

Some people have argued it’s not necessary to have a month devoted to black history. For one it makes us lazy every other day of the year and two, there’s no Latino, Asian, or Native History Month. Why black history? Do you think that black history month is necessary?

It’s Important to have it, as black people we need to be reminded of our past.  It’s a time we reunite as a family and embrace our culture.  I don’t care if other races have a month, that’s up to them. Black history is important to me.  My history will not disappear!

Thembi, do you think as a people and community we are progressing? What helps us in that progress or prevents us from growing stronger as a community?

Black people have always had music and arts.  This is how we have progressed. We have made our voices known through songs.  We’ve had talent since slavery days.  For centuries our talents for some of us has been the only method for any chances of success.  We used the arts to survive. We sang songs when we were angry to get the anger out our bodies.  It has been our method of healing. We were kept from schools, from books and even now are prevented from progressing with poor education in our neighborhood schools. Today we can say a few are doctors and lawyers but it’s not enough. Education costs and they know we will never be able to afford it. We are being held back as we try to heal ourselves and grow.  If we adopt the message from Umoja and be proud and unite “the spirit of togetherness” we will see further changes. But still some of us are gifted and the only way out is to utilize the talents our ancestors passed on.  They can’t take that from us.

Negative images of black people are always portrayed in the media; Umoja has been a positive movement towards highlighting and bringing light on the positives of black people and culture.  You travel all over the world creating a different view for people, what’s going to happen for you after it’s done, after you’ve stopped?

I’m Passionate about art I do it for the love, as long as I have this passion I will continue and that’s why I educate others so they can continue it as well.  We need people to see more of the positive and good things of our people.  Some of us are angry as I said and don’t know why.  This is for them, this is for you, this isn’t for white or black, this is for everyone.

Umoja is now playing at the Elgin Theatre. For tickets call ticketmaster at 416.872.1111 or visit www.ticketmaster.ca. Thembi Nyandeni also appears in the Oscar nominated South African movie Tsotsi opening in Toronto in March.

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