by John Stoltenberg

Even if you already know how inspiring and moving this show is, from seeing the film or the musical on stage, you are in for a spirit-lifting, heart-leaping, foot-stomping thrill when you experience what Howard University students have done with Sarafina!  

From the very first notes to the rousing finale, 21 amazing singer/actor/dancers (plus three backup singers and six musicians) turn a story of black students’ struggle for freedom in South Africa into a celebration of determination, hope, and talent that totally rocks the Ira Aldridge Theater.

Sarafina! is a South African musical written and composed by Mbongeni Ngema, with music co-arranged by  Hugh Masekela. It’s set in the 1980s in a Soweto high school where students retell the true story of a 1976 student-led protest. Back then the students were  required by the white government to use Afrikaans in classes instead of their own language, Zulu, and they took their fury to the streets. Ultimately their activism brought about change, but before that there was much bloodshed; students were shot at by police and died. A beautifully powerful work of musical theater, Sarafina! stands as a testament to student bravery then and now, and it’s no wonder why the Howard University Department of Theater Arts has committed major resources to it.

Eric Ruffin, whose direction of Black Nativity at Theater Alliance I recently admired, again leads a big ensemble and creative team to enthralling glory. Musical Director Mongezi Ntaka brings out such gorgeous choral and solo vocals I could have shut my eyes and believed I was hearing an original cast recording. Choreographer Jakari Sherman has the students on a roll of high-energy stepping and gymnastic dance moves that doesn’t let up. Fight Choreographer Nate Shelton has actors in confrontations that look safe but make you jump anyway. And Dialect Coach Courtney Ferguson leaves not a single player’s diction unpersuasive.

Costume Designer Kendra Rai takes a school-uniform look for the students and individuates it,  gives their teacher a closetful of color, and decks the cast in  tribal-inspired costumes for an eye-popping second-act dance routine. Scenic Designer Michael C. Stepowany’s movable corrugated-steel panels serve the fast-paced action smartly. And Lighting Designer TW Starnes lends the show an apt rock concert feel.

The band upstage plays very like at a rock concert: Mongezi Ntaka (guitar), Bert Cross II (keyboard), Stephan Naylor (bass), Demetrius Whitsey (drums), Jonathon Neal (trumpet/flugelhorn), Royce Hodnett (saxophone). And standing just in front of them,  Taylor Hayes, Derrionne Key, Joshua Pyrum sing backup.

The entire ensemble blew me away. Though there were standout individual performances,  it was the overwhelmingly in-sync spirit of unity in their singing and dancing that was unmistakably the medium and message in one: Amanda Morris, Brittany Clark (a high-kicking knockout as the teacher, Mistress It’s a Pity), Cobe Jackson, Danielle King, Douglas Ruffin, Ezinne Elele, Gerald Doe, Gregory Banks, Isaiah Reed (arresting as the combative Crocodile), I’shanee Ford, Jabari Denson (enjoyable as the personable Colgate), Kamau Mitchell, Kevin Thorne, Kristen Armour (awesome as the feisty Sarafina), Mickaela Armstead, Neah Banks, Nia Savoy, Nzingha Ashford, Taylor Burrell, Tony Donaldson Jr., Tyasia Niangane.

Howard commissioned a new prologue especially for this run, in order to take  into account the end of Apartheid and the release of  Nelson Mandela from prison. Change and freedom come slowly; but without courageous activism, they would not ever. That’s the unmissable lesson of Sarafina! If ever a university show possessed performing excellence on a grand scale on top of profound educational purpose, the stunning production I saw last night was surely it.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Sarafina! produced by Howard University Department of Theatre Arts plays to March 12, 2015 at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.