Peter Brook’s “The Suit”, based on Cam Thenbe’s short story, is a graceful, distilled piece of pure theatre. Told with the light touch of a bedtime story, its moral fable about jealousy functions as a fun house mirror in which glimpses of society’s oppression, in this case Aparthied, can be glimpsed moving in the background.
“The Suit”, a montage-musical developed by Brook, long term collaborator Marie- Hélène Estienne and composer-arranger Franck Krawczyk, is set in the legendary Sofiatown (or Kofifi) the center of jazz, politics and literature in Johannesburg during the 40’s and 50’s.
Sof’town, a mix of Black Africans, bi-racial Coloureds, Indians and Chinese, even had its own Sophiatown Renaissance. It’s illegal bars (“shebeens”) were packed with zoot suited gangsters (Tsotsi’s), jazzmen, hustler, writers and bohemians.
Under the Immorality Amendment Act, No 21 of 1950, people of mixed races could not reside together. In 1955, the various ethnic groups were separated and forceably moved. Black Africans ended up in Meadowlands, Soweto. Sophiatown was flattened.
The narrator (one of many characters morphed by Jordan Barbour) mourns the zesty, lost neighborhood, a vanished wonderland, with its “music being played, tales being told, lives being lived.” He catalogues the illegal bars with their poetic names, “The 39 Steps” The Sanctuary”, “The Nightingale In Love” then explains, “The story I’m going to tell couldn’t have happened anywhere except in countries like South Africa, which lived under an iron fist of oppression.”
This pared down show couldn’t be more different from Brook’s epic The Mahabharata , which played here during the 1987 Olympic Arts Festival. What it has in common is the fluidity of Brook’s story-tellers’ theatre.
Brook reveals the love nest of Philomen (Ugandon actor Ivanno Jeremiah) and his beloved wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). Respectable Philomen, a secretary in a white-law firm, avoids the shebeen speakeasies, and unlike his neighbors, doesn’t beat his wife.
It’s Philomen’s ritual to wake, dress for work and serve breakfast in bed to his still sleeping Tillie. Lying in cozy contentment, Tillie’s head on Philomen’s shoulder, they seem to have everything a couple could want. Once Philomen leaves for work, Tilda greets the day with a sensual version of Bricusse & Newley’s “Feeling Good” (made famous by Nina Simone”).
Philomen greet two regulars at the bus stop. One, the gossipy Maphikela (Jordan Barbour) is Philomen’s daily bulletin, the source of all useful gossip. But his latest news destroys the couples bliss forever. Conscience-bidden, blaming it on his own girlfriend, Maphikela reveals Matilda’s infidelity. Philomen races home and surprises the lovers in bed. Her lover (Mark Kavuma) leaps out the window, leaving his suit behind.
In the shocking logic of the long repressed, Philomen metes out his punishment. “We have a visitor, Tilly”, husband-turned tyrant intones, staring at the suit. “I’d like him to be treated with the greatest consideration. He will eat every meal with us and share all we have. Since we have no spare room, he’d better sleep here. But the point is, Tilly, that you will meticulously look after him. If he vanishes or anything else happens to him… Matilda, I’ll kill you.”
Kill her he does through slow humiliation. In one scene, oddly reminiscent of “Easter Parade”, the couple, in their Sunday best, parade down the boulevard greeting friends, holding the suit between them. The suit becomes Matilda’s Scarlet letter, even if others don’t grasp the meaning.
Musicality and lithe transformations sweeten our enjoyment, but South Africa’s 1950 reality is always present.
The men suffer constant indignities. Buses pass them by. White men complain about their smell. Whites churches refuse to let them worship, or lock them away in empty room where they can hear the service but can’t be seen. The government’s increasing racist policies are the topic at the shebeen.
But conservative Philomen doesn’t allow himself the escape of drinking. He holds himself above all that. It takes the tale tattler’s expose of Tillie’s adultery to tap into his repressed rage.
Tillie knows she has a husband other women envy, but she dreams of becoming a songbird like Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and the up and coming Mirium Makeba.
Bored and restless, she manages to sing at a shebeen, where she picks up her lover. Later, during her punishment, she convinces Philomen to let her join the church ladies good works, and sings triumphantly for them, while the male cast cuts dance moves worthy of “The Four Tops.”
At the party he lets her throw, she preens in her optimistic red dress. Tillie’s epiphany comes when she’s asked to sing for their guests. She sings the popular Swhili love ballad “Malaika,” about a young man who’s too poor to marry his “little bird.”
A moment later Philomen brings out the suit, forcing her to dance with the symbol of her adultery, and all is lost.
A three piece band doubling as male and female characters onstage make for infectious fun, and, in the party scene, add to their ranks with people plucked from the audience. (At our show one of the audience members onstage began harmonizing with a choral song.)
LA-based Mark Christine plays accordian and piano. Rock guitarist Arthur Astier has collaborated with Franck Krawczyk on numerous productions. Young British Jazz trumpeter Mark Kavumma (voted best soloist at the first Essentially Ellington competition in the U.K.) already has a stellar career. All three delight in playing characters when not weaving the score, strolling around the stage playing their instruments during scene changes, establishing both mood and place.
Evocative costumes by Oria Puppa (including a suit that becomes a character), a minimalist set of 12 brightly painted chairs and rolling racks which stand in for many elements: a bus, a wardrobe, even in a funny opening bit- an outhouse; and Philippe Vialatt’s clever lighting, charm us. We’re appalled by the ending, and relieved by the companies final transformation.
Composer Franck Krawczyk has assembled a musical, imbedding pop songs into a weave of classical music, embellished with snatches of jazz improvisation..
Most of the songs come from the Sophiatown era: three songs made famous by Mirium Makeba, “Ntjilo, Ntjilo”, “Malaika” and the aching “Forbidden Games” (with Makeba’s lyrics).
Other songs woven into the found musical include “Willow Weep For Me” ( Billie Holday’s version is the most famous), and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” also made famous by Holiday.
Chilean folk icon Victor Jara’s “Luchin” illustrates a story, based on Jara’s life, of a protest singer tortured and killed by the secret police. Brook transposed Jara’s story, which took place in the Chile Stadium during Pinochet’s bloody coup, to Sophiatown.
Classical music features Bach, Mahler, Hayden, Schubert, even a Strauss waltz. Mark Christine’s entry, playing an accordian version of Schubert’s “Serenade” and the later “Death and the Maiden” are eerily effective.
Mark Christine’s quiet closing version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, underscores the closing recycling of one of the plays early images. Philomene cradles his Matilda, too late to forgive or be forgiven.
South African Nonhlanahla Khewesi played on Broadway for five years in the Lion King, with Wyclef Jean for a decade, and heads up the hard bop jazzy Kheswa and her Martians with its Soweto meets Harlem Jazz stylings.
Can Themba, referred to in one of the stories within a story, lived and wrote in Sophiatown before it was destroyed under the Apartheid Group Areas Act. Banned during Apartheid, Themba died penniless, in exile, in Swaziland. His stories were published posthumously in two collections.
Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon’s original stage version played at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in the early 1990s. Barney Simon and Jean-Claude Carrière translated it into French (“Le Costume”) for Peter Brook’s 1994 Paris production. Brook revisited it bringing it to life in English, the language of Themba’s original story. UNFORGETTABLE