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Culture Swap: SMU and South African Students Share History, Customs and a Whirlwind Production of "Oklahoma!"

SMU students and South African students get to know each other as they perform a musical, travel to game reserves, study historical sites and gain new understanding about life across the ocean

Selfies at PheZulu Safari Park; from Left: Amanda Kosi (UKZN voice teacher), Zatelela "Smiley" Sanelisiwe (UKZN student), and Meadows students Ashley Seldon and Alyssa Barnes. Front: Meadows student Kathryn Loper. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Barnes

Every summer, a group of SMU students take a 25-hour journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Durban, South Africa. There they spend five unforgettable weeks with students from Durban’s University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN); see big game at the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park nature reserve; learn about the Zulu people at the centuries-old Valley of 1000 Hills; tour District Six, an area originally settled by former slaves, artisans, merchants, and Malaysian and other immigrants brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company, and severely impacted by apartheid in the 1970s; and splash at the beaches of Durban, located on the coast of the Indian Ocean. They also visit Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years), located in the Atlantic Ocean, four and a half miles from Cape Town.

In addition, they collaborate on presenting a fully staged production of an American musical. In summer 2016, students from SMU and UKZN worked hard over a two-week period to bring Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to capacity crowds at the UZKN Jubilee Hall stage.

Students from both universities had two and a half weeks to pull together a full-length presentation of the musical "Oklahoma!," which played to capacity crowds at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. Top, l to r, UKZN’s Eunice Mokoena in the role of Laurey Williams and SMU’s J. Rodman Steele in the role of Curly McLain. Foreground l to r: SMU’s Ashley Seldon as Ado Annie and UKZN’s Siphelele Sithole as Will Parker, with UKZN’s Lindokuhle Ngcobo listening in as the peddler Ali Hakim.

“Staging, dialogue, choreography and dancing all come together in just over 16 days,” says Barbara Hill Moore, professor of voice at SMU Meadows and founder of the SMU-in-South Africa program.

Some of the students have been in theatrical productions before, but for others, the SMU-in-South Africa production is the first time.

“I was extremely nervous about being pushed so far out of my comfort zone,” says Kathryn Loper, an SMU human rights major (’18) and Student Senate diversity committee member. “Before the trip I had never taken a music or dance class. However, by taking on the role of stage manager, I developed a deep appreciation and greater understanding for the arts and all of the hard work that goes into putting on a production. Professor Hill Moore was always encouraging, and she pushed me to try new things.”

For Alyssa Barnes, being in a musical was in her wheelhouse; the former high school voice teacher is one year away from earning her M.M. in performance (voice). Having starred in a recent production of The Magic Flute at SMU, she admits that, at first, performing a show with just two weeks’ preparation time seemed impossible, especially since all the actors – including those from South Africa, a country with 11 official languages – had to deliver their lines with an Oklahoma accent. But it all came together.

“Working with students at UKZN was a similar feeling to being at a family gathering at home,” says Barnes. “At the beginning of each rehearsal, we would circle up and one by one share a word we'd learned in Zulu or English. It ensured that American and South African students interacted, and it created many very comical moments! There was such an openness and willingness to share and be present with others. I hope to really hold on to that way of being and connecting with people. It's really special.”

Expanding cultural understanding

The program benefits the students from both countries in multiple ways, says Hill Moore. “It has provided opportunities for the South Africans to further their education and find employment in vocal performance and music education in their country and in America,” she says, noting that each year, she recruits one or more South African students to come to the U.S. to study voice at SMU Meadows.

“For SMU participants, SMU-in-South Africa is frequently life-changing!” she says. “Our students embark on this long journey thinking they will sing in a musical, have fun and go on a safari. They do experience those things, but they do so much more because the music is a catalyst for learning and understanding people, culture, customs, humanity, humility and an endless number of things far too great to list.”

The desire to learn about each other’s culture is strong. “The South Africans work with the Americans six days a week on the musical project because they want to learn our music and culture,” says Hill Moore. “They are devoted and committed because they believe it will bring them closer to understanding what it means to be an American.

“I think our students are truly shocked by the level of commitment of the students in South Africa. Of course, we ALL want to have a fine production, but after spending so much time together, we also really understand and respect the differences and likenesses of our peers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the people of South Africa to people in America and throughout the world.

“We learn things about ourselves, including our own patience, tolerance and openness to difference.”

SMU’s Jayce Miller (B.B.A. in Accounting, B.S. in Mathematics ’16; M.S. Computer Science, ’18) says he saw racism through a different prism while in South Africa. Miller, who is white, observed that, even though apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994 after being in place for more than 50 years, several examples of blatant racism were noticeable, especially in older people raised before apartheid was repealed. “I know America isn’t perfect, but I came away with a new appreciation of the progress we have made in the U.S. in light of South Africa’s history of apartheid and racial tension,” he said.

Rodman Steele (B.A. Music ’17) wanted to do the SMU-in-South Africa program to further his musical and acting abilities but he came away with much more. He found the UZKN students to be welcoming and intriguing, and he also noticed that many of them face challenges foreign to SMU students.

Group Selfie
Students visited the historic Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park nature reserve, where all five species of big game animals can be found. Left to right: Alyssa Barnes (M.M. Performance/Voice ’17); LeAndrew Moore (assistant program director, SMU-in-South Africa); Roger Riggle (director/producer of Oklahoma!); Ashley Seldon (M.M. Performance/Voice ’17); Professor of Voice Barbara Hill-Moore; Bradley Klein, assistant director, SMU Embrey Human Rights Program; Erin Klein; Vocal Coach Jason Smith; Kathryn Loper (B.A. Human Rights ’18), Grace Cuny (B.F.A. Dance ’18), Natalie Miller (B.M. Music, B.S. Biology ’19). Holding the selfie stick is Rodman Steele (B.A. Music ’17).

“Many of the UZKN students have experienced hardships such as supporting their family, raising children, having lost parents and siblings, low economic stability and more, yet this didn't keep them from having a positive outlook on life,” he says. “My experiences on the SMU-in-South Africa trip vastly broadened my view of the world.”

“The African continent is often depicted as impoverished, unindustrialized and unsafe,” says Barnes. “I hope that through programs like SMU-in-South Africa, Americans can not only learn about the amazing beauty of the South African country and culture, but also come to know that there is far more to the continent than we hear about in the news.”

Miller agrees. “Going on this study abroad trip, I guarantee you’ll learn so much more about yourself and the world around you and come to a newfound understanding and appreciation you didn’t quite have before.”

Read more about SMU-in-South Africa, a South African review of the SMU-UZKN 2016 production of Oklahoma!, the SMU Meadows Division of Music and Professor of Voice Barbara Hill Moore.

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