Dancing to the beat of a Bokamoso song

Students played host to 12 musical guests this week who travelled more than 8,000 miles to share their song, dance and theatrics with the Foggy Bottom community.

Twelve cultural ambassadors between 18 and 25 years old from the Bokamoso Youth Centre in Winterveldt, South Africa are staying on campus with students as part of The South Africa Project.

Now in its ninth year, the program brings students from the Bokamoso Youth Centre for five days of cultural immersion, classes and performances at GW.

This year, the group will premiere “Take Off the Mask,” an original play written by Leslie Jacobson, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance. The play focuses on the immense challenges facing the South African youth as they prepare for their future while still holding on to their culture and traditions.

It will also feature traditional Xhosa, Tswana and Zulu dance and song, collaborative group duets with the GW Troubadours and readings of original poetry.

“It’s a night of some contemporary stuff. It’s a night of some traditional stuff. It’s a night of music and poetry and words,” said Ariel Warmflash, a senior and student coordinator for the group’s stay.

“Take Off the Mask” was inspired during Jacobson’s ninth trip to Winterveldt this past summer and incorporates the stories, struggles, passions, dreams and cultures of the Bokamoso youth.

Jacobson and her colleague Roy Barber, from St. Andrews Episcopal School and president of the Bokamoso Youth Foundation, have been travelling to South Africa, often bringing their students along, since 2003. During their summer trips, they write and develop performance pieces about specific challenges the South African community faces, including extreme poverty, a 50-percent unemployment rate, a 25-percent HIV/AIDS infection rate, violence at home, youth pregnancy and lack of education.

The Bokamoso Youth Centre aims to combat these problems by bringing the participating youth opportunity and hope.

The South Africa Project is now sponsored by the GW Department of Theater and Dance, and with support from the department of music, Africana studies and women’s studies departments, along with the Multi-Cultural Students Association, the Bokamoso Youth Foundation, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and The Seekers Church.

“I think of theater as a way to give voice to the voiceless, to make people who seem forgotten or not important be given their moment and their humanity,” Jacobson said.

Thapelo Mashaba, the group’s director and a facilitator at the center, said “Take Off the Mask” sends a basic message: “Be real, be yourself and do the right thing.”

“Sometimes we do some stuff to please our peers or try to be part of the group, so we put on the mask,” Mashaba said. “It’s a play about youth trying to find their success, trying to do something that is real.”

One of the Bokamoso performers, Prince Tlou, 21, said the play is about the struggles he and his peers experience back home.

“It’s just about kids who faced obstacles once they tried to reach their success,” he said. “My character is Zakes who is aspiring to become a chemical engineer, but his father gets retrenched [fired], and he has to drop out of school to take care of the family.”

Jacobson, Warmflash and junior Madeline Hendricks first introduced the play to the Bokamoso community during the summer. The students travelled to South Africa, funded by a Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowship, this past summer along with 10 graduate students in the GW Art Therapy program, and program director Heidi Bardot. While there they rehearsed and refined the performance they will be debuting for the GW community at the end of their stay.

Proceeds from Friday’s performance will directly benefit the Bokamoso Youth Centre and scholarship program. Tickets are considered direct donations to Bokamoso and cost $10 for students and $30 for general admission.

“Last year we put 23 young men and women from Bokamoso into a year of college, university or vocational training,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said that even if some organizations can boast their successes with more impressive statistics, she is proud of the foundation’s progress.

“We have this relationship now of mutual trust and respect, and, you know, I’m very happy working in this sort of microcosm, because I feel like it will radiate out,” Jacobson said.

Warmflash, who organized the group’s stay and spent her summer recording their stories as an independent research project on a Luther Rice Fellowship, emphasized that hosting isn’t just giving people breakfast in the morning and having people over at night.

“It’s the opportunity to get to know a person from another country that you would never meet under normal circumstances and that really have the opportunity to be your friend,” Warmflash said.

The performance will be held in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

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