THE SUIT (Prince): Balancing cruelty and kindness in pre-apartheid South Africa

Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Ivanno Jeremiah
Nonhlanhla Kheswa, Ivanno Jeremiah

If Philadelphia is a tightly wound city wearing a permanent scowl, Sophiatown is tightly wound with a broad smile.

Sophiatown was a cultural hub for black South Africans until 1954, when the institution of apartheid wiped it out. It is also the setting of THE SUIT, directed and adapted by the legendary Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. Jazz and blues musicians, writers, and aspiring politicians flourished there despite widespread poverty.

Among those writers was Can Thembe, author of THE SUIT, which Brook’ musical play is based upon. Thembe believed that it would bring him and his wife fame and fortune, but it was censored, and Thembe, like his home, was eradicated by apartheid.

The awful fate of town and author do not weigh down Brook’ carefully weighted production. First and foremost is the music of Sophiatown, jazz and blues, introduced on-stage by a small, four piece band. Sultry trumpets, steamy guitar and vocals characterize the sweaty, gritty, closely-packed city. Under this is the story of Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah), who punishes his adulterous wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) by making her take meticulous care of the suit left behind by her lover.

Closing out the production’s small ensemble is Jordan Barbour, who plays multiple roles, including the narrator, whose warmth and light touch characterize the production.

THE SUIT, he claims with a smile, is a story which could occur in no other town than Sophiatown: a crowded, impoverished conurbation of artists, shebeens and cardboard homes, preyed upon by pickpockets, tyrannized by an invincible and murderous police force, and truly on the brink of destruction. Yet its inhabitants are garrulous, upbeat, patient, even overly accommodating.

This teetering unbalance is personified in Philomen (“the perfect secretary,” as he characterizes himself, and “the perfect husband to his loving wife”), whose defense against the threat of destruction which hangs over his city, his friends and his life, is to be a doting husband and a generous friend. But when he learns that Matilda has betrayed him, he begins a process of psychic disintegration, slowly losing control of himself. The frayed edges, and incipient danger, underneath his obliging persona (and, perhaps, the accommodating face of the city) begin to show.

Overall, Brook’s compelling production is intimate and kind, treating the play’s tragedy and theatricality with a delicate touch. THE SUIT incorporates widespread themes, and Brook lets them all exist on stage without crowding one another out. Viewers will be hard-pressed to assimilate twin senses of mourning and of joy, both of which are fully present on stage, and both of which will follow them home. [The Prince, 1412 Chestnut St.] February 26 – March 8, 2014.

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