From South Africa, an artistic exchange

A dozen South African students performed original songs, poems and dances at Betts Theatre Friday, during an annual show and cultural exchange sponsored by the University.

The students came to D.C. through the South Africa Project, an initiative founded by GW, the St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac, Md., and the Bokamoso Youth Center, which allows impoverished youth to study theater, dance and other performing arts in South Africa. Since 2004, students have traveled to GW from Bokamoso to take classes and rehearse their performance, which is held at the end of the trip.

“They are cultural ambassadors,” theater professor Leslie Jacobson, who worked with the students both here and in South Africa, said in an interview. “They give us all a window into their lives, in order to gain interest in and resources for their community.”

Jacobson said she has been involved with the center since 2003, when she made her first trip after receiving a grant from the University. Once in South Africa, she worked with the center’s youth coach, St. Andrews music teacher Roy Barber, to create what she called “social-action theater.”

“Performing plays, songs and dances… builds confidence and self-esteem in the youth,” she said. “Creating the plays helps them to look at problems in their community in new ways – and to, perhaps, find new solutions for the challenges in their lives.”

During their stay at GW, the dozen students practiced their performance with Jacobson and several theater students, who accompanied Jacobson to Bokamoso this past summer.

“I always wanted to make a change through theater, and that’s what they were doing,” senior Scout Seide said of her decision to travel to Bokamoso. “I saved up every penny I could to go.”

Seide said the highlight of the show for her was an original play by the students, titled “Halfway to Somewhere.” The play examines the definition of success and what it means for the actors. During the play, situations arose in which the characters tackled the idea of the irresistible word, “success.”

“I sobbed like a baby,” she said. “I was so proud watching them perform.” Seide, Jacobson and two other students helped the Bokamoso students create the play last summer.

Following the play, the students performed poems, dances and a variety of a cappella songs. Some were traditional African songs; others were more contemporary, such as John Legend’s “Used to Love U,” which the group sang with the GW Troubadours.

Senior David Cutting said the Troubadours have participated in the show since its inception.

“It’s important to have that cultural exchange,” he said. “[The Bokamoso students] totally love their art… it seems to come so naturally to them.”

Jacobson said she thought the show went well, and that performing is often the best way for different cultures to interact.

“I believe in the power of art to change the world,” she said. And what better way to do so then through the amusement of theater?

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