South African actors perform at GW

Members of the Bokamoso Youth Theatre portrayed the gritty realities of AIDS, domestic violence and death at Betts Marvin Theater on Feb. 5. The performers came from a center for at-risk South African teens to act out issues that plague their hometown of Winterveldt, South Africa, an area that has struggled with poverty, illiteracy and illness.

“Bokamoso means future,” said Albert Mhkonza, director of the Bokamoso Youth Center. “We have programs for students who have graduated from high school but are unable to further their studies. We want to keep their minds busy so they do not think about risky behavior.”

The students, who learned to act and at the center, performed “It Won’t Happen to Me,” which addressed the AIDS epidemic. “Family Portraits: The Door is Open,” which was written by GW Theatre and Dance department chair Leslie Jacobson, portrayed families’ struggles against domestic violence. The performance concluded with song and dance performed in the traditional South African languages of Tswana, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Jacobson, who traveled to Winterveldt on a research grant from the University in 2003, was able to interview social workers and families about their experience with domestic violence before writing the musical play for the young adults at the youth center. “It was hard for people to sit and tell their story,” she said, “but with acting, it came out.”

The Bokamoso Youth Theater has performed the plays throughout South Africa to raise awareness of the dangers of AIDS and domestic violence. Proceeds from all U.S. performances went to the youth center’s outreach programs in the community, which include counseling services and HIV awareness programs.

“There is a raw power to how this is their story,” Jacobson said. “A real actor might have given a better performance but wouldn’t have had the authenticity of this group.”

The 10 performers, who ranged in age from 19 to 23, performed in Philadelphia and at other local universities. They stayed with students and host families from the D.C. area. In Philadelphia, they spent time with an organization for at-risk youths that was similar to their own.

“Most of the people they stayed with were affluent, but I thought they should see that not all of the U.S. is as affluent,” Jacobson said. “They were really able to connect with this group.”

Jacobson said she hopes to return to South Africa to write another play for the group. “I have already done some improvisations with the kids, and I think the next play will go more in-depth about the changing gender roles in South Africa,” she said. “Things are still very traditional.”

For now, Bokamosa is helping these teens gain life skills that will help them get a job or go to college someday, while keeping them away from high-risk sexual activity.

“When people come to see us and donate for us, they help us so we can help others,” said Beauty Mahlangu, who portrays a young woman whose best friend has died of AIDS.

“My longtime goal is to be a nurse,” said Thokozile, or Togo Mnguni, who plays a social worker in “Family Portraits.” “But I will always keep singing.”

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