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Theater Review

Seeing the Light, Not the Tunnel

Set against a story of apartheid, the lively 'Gumboots' celebrates the resilience of a group of miners.

November 24, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

A high-energy, feel-good show about an oppressive, feel-bad time in the history of South Africa, "Gumboots" brings to the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills a celebration of men working: their on-the-job relationships, their thoughts about their families, their ability to find affirmation in harsh, physical labor.

If that description sounds something like "Tap Dogs," the resemblance extends to the percussive dance idiom that gives "Gumboots" its name and a scaffold set by Nigel Triffitt--the original "Tap Dogs" designer-director--that gets embellished and modified over the 90-minute running time (no intermission).

But where the evolving set proved central to the "Tap Dogs" work ethic, its use in "Gumboots" remains largely decorative. The men here aren't playing construction workers but gold miners, and as we begin to learn between their endlessly diverting a cappella songs and boot-slapping dances, the gumboot idiom reflects an African genius for creating something from nothing.

Partly derived from traditional Zulu stamping dances, the gumboot vocabulary evolved late in the 19th century from unspeakable working conditions under apartheid. Shackled together in dark and often flooded work spaces, forbidden to speak and given boots to wear because that was cheaper than draining the water, the miners communicated through rhythm and sustained self-esteem through virtuosity.

As directed by Zenzi Mbuli, "Gumboots" tells their story and celebrates their resilience--but from a safe distance, as if backbreaking toil were a thing of the past and life an endless party. After all, the shackles are gone--with clusters of metal rings (traditionally bottle caps) attached to the men's ankles to evoke their sound. Moreover, the 12 men in the cast look downright fashionable in the loose, rumpled denims they wear in place of the real miners' ragged, patched pants.

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When their shirts come off, and the men sing about being too sexy for their boots--or the irrepressible, multitalented Vincent Ncabashe playfully cruises the audience for a woman with gleaming teeth--the mines of Johannesburg seem very far away indeed.

But the songs keep bringing us back: songs that tell us that the oppressors who own "the city of gold" stole the sun from the miners, plus songs that pray for a long life in the sun and honor the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Derived from a number of sources (including Ncabashe and Mbuli), these songs are the soul of "Gumboots" and take us beyond the specific context of the miners' lives to universal statements that audiences have embraced in the show's previous engagements in London and Edinburgh, Scotland.

You might argue that there's a more pertinent and powerful show yet to arise from this subject--one with a tough-minded political edge--but surely no more appealing or accomplished company to perform it.

With choreography credited to Mbuli and the Rishile Gumboot Dancers of Soweto, the show features an exciting array of high-speed line dances performed on the forestage or on the various set units--but only the briefest of solos, except for Ncabashe's splash-dance in a shallow water trough (another "Tap Dogs" inheritance).

Vocal harmonies dominate the evening, but music director Darryl G. Ivey contributes occasional keyboard accompaniments. Ncabashe periodically adds guitar, and different types of drumming reinforce the rhythmic power of the dances--especially the use of the large, cowhide-covered Zulu drums called izigubu.

At its opening Wednesday (the start of a three-week run), "Gumboots" also featured striking light effects by Gavin Norris that depended on the stage being constantly smoky. And, floating over the audience, that dense, oily smoke got in your eyes, lungs, throat and nasal passages if you sat anywhere near the stage.

No doubt the air is just as bad in the mines of Johannesburg, but a musical so intent on making the audience feel the pride and joyous camaraderie in the miners' lives might well reconsider being so grimly realistic and experiential in its production values.

Or, if not, couldn't the lobby concession stands sell oxygen tanks as well as CDs and T-shirts?

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* "Gumboots" continues through Dec. 10 at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Today, 2 and 8 p.m. Also Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. $25 (today's matinee only) to $52. (213) 365-3500.

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