Ngema's story of a Soweto township girl is a battle song for freedom


He is always preparing for battle.

Even sitting in the lobby of a posh hotel with his beautiful young wife at his side, discussing the play that he wrote that went on to world success and has now become a big budget motion picture, Mbongeni Ngema is thinking of battle.

"It is impossible," he says with grave solemnity, "to look at a white person and not think of war. I think white people feel the same way. You just know that something isn't right."

It is said more in sadness than anger, the weariness of a much-bloodied campaigner, even though his weapons are words and music and dramatic passion.

His wife, 21 and a movie star, hastens to agree.

"Sometimes I don't like to think about it. Sometimes I get tired. But you always have an unquenchable thirst for freedom. You know that freedom will come -- it makes you want to fight. And you think, I will be all right."

Leleti Khumalo is small and withdrawn, barely noticeable except when she smiles and drives the shadows from the far corners of the room. For nearly five years in a variety of venues she's been playing her husband's most passionate invention, Sarafina, a Soweto township girl who over a long year is politicized by an ardent teacher, becomes a revolutionary, then a torture victim and emerges with head and heart intact. Now that project has reached its ultimate destination -- a huge, splashy musical film, starring, along with Khumalo, the American film star Whoopi Goldberg and actually filmed on the streets of Soweto.

Mr. Ngema conceived the play seven years ago after a 1985 visit with Winnie Mandela in Soweto. He had already achieved some world fame as the creator of the award-winning musical drama "Woza Albert." But he was hungry for a new project and Mandela suggested that he do a piece to celebrate the generation of township children who fought against apartheid when the professional leaders in the struggle -- including, of course, her husband Nelson -- were imprisoned.

"I went home that evening," he says, "with the idea of doing a musical that would combine two subjects: the mbaqanga music of South Africa and the resilience of the children as they fight the apartheid system. That was a great period of hopelessness in the townships. Those children saved us from it."

The production ultimately premiered in Johannesburg in 1987; then it was invited to Lincoln Center in New York by Gregory Mosher, where it premiered in January of 1988, finally moving to Broadway, where it was nominated for five Tonys, including a Best Musical and a Best Performance nomination for Khumalo. Other companies have toured Europe, Japan and Australia.

But when the inevitable film production rolled around, Khumalo found one thing difficult.

"In the theater, you have to project. In the movies you have to be natural. It feels strange talking to the camera."

Ngema had no such difficulty.

"When I write plays, he said, "I see them as movies. Even though I wrote mostly for the stage, it was a natural transition."

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