Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Suit on stage at ACT-SF

The Suit adapted by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, from the short story by Daniel Canodoce "Can" Themba (1924-1968) takes place in Sophiatown in South Africa in the mid-1950s. It is the story of a man in love with his wife, her infidelity and the cost to both.

Questions raised in this 90 minute sparse, yet intense drama, where in a period in South African history wherein the Apartheid government controls every visible aspect of black life, love perhaps to a romantic like Philomon (actor Jordan Barbour) is sacrosanct, second perhaps to belief in daily sunrise. He puts all of his desires into a box he names "wife" and "lover" and "Matilda" (actress Nonhlanhla Kheswa). 

Made of clay, she bakes unevenly and breaks in the kiln. Like Humpty Dumpty, no amount of superglue will piece what the two had-- at least in Philomon's imagination --back together, so he invents a cruel punishment for Miltilda. This is the price she pays for fracturing his dream.

The couple invite the Suit to join them in a ménage à trois. He obliges and in doing so, keeps the breach open to fester and run, rather than heal and perhaps open an opportunity for the couple to grow. If she doesn't play, he will kill her, Philomon says. The interruption of his calm demeanor with this announcement scares her, as he hits the table with his fists one night leaning forward slightly raised from his seat when she forgets at dinner to set The Suit a place at the table.

Is forgiveness something one can expect when guilty of great harm? Is revenge ever justified? Why is it so hard to love and let go? Can one live with a broken heart?

The staging is sparse --chairs, a couple of metal garment racks, a couple of tables, and cloths, changes of clothing and a blue scarf for the antagonist Philomon and his wife Matilda.

There are three musicians who interact with the couple and a narrator/character Maphikela (actor Jordan Barbour), Philomon's good friend. Barbour as narrator introduces the story as he also appears as minor characters.

The time is then, but it is also now. The accent is inconsistent with the place--the couple speak slightly accented English, but Philomon's friend, Maphikela's English is not the heavily accented South African dialect. Also the musical selections are inconsistent with the place and period--at one point, the narrator sings Strange Fruit (1939)--the arrangement is lovely; however, though philosophically congruent with the period, a song culturally tied to the drama unfolding would have been much more powerful, even if the audience couldn't translate it (

I do not expect plays which take their content from outside the west to be immediately accessible; I do not mind the work. In fact, there are plays written from an American or European context which I struggle with and in the end realize I was not the intended audience, this is why certain nuances escape me. The same should be true of The Suit. I can't imagine the play translated into French for Parisian audiences. Out of context, Philomon and Matilda not only lose their relevance, they lose their humanity. There is no art that is without context and universal. English is not a universal language and the story Can Themba wrote reflected the angst and powerlessness he felt as an artist in a country dominated by a minority white race. He could not love whom he loved, so the brilliant writer drank himself into a stupor so he could manage the days.

Philomon manages his days by controling Matilda's every move, and when he finds out she has stepped out of his yard and planted seeds which are flowering in another's he ties her up and brings her back inside his yard. When we meet him he is methodical down to planning when to pee in the morning and how he washes up before work each day. He has no aspirations or future plans. We don't know why he and Matilda don't have children. We just know that as a black man working, Matilda's mom tells her, he is a catch and that God sent him to her.

There seems to be an attempt to incorporate the events of the day into the lives of these two characters, when what is happening outside does not intrude on what happens between the two--Matilda is bored and takes a lover--it is classic jealousy. What is not classic is Philomon's decision to stay with her and invite the Suit to join the family and thus humiliate his wife.

At one point in the play, when the Suit is not in the scenes as much, I think Philomon has forgiven Matilda, so the ending is quite startling. 

I am not certain, given the absence of cultural specificity who is the audience here. American theatre tends to be predominantly white so such a push for homogeneity or homogenized content perhaps appeals to an audience where the dominant culture rules. I read in the program or in Words on Plays in an interview with South African actress Nonhlanhla Kheswa, that South African black audiences would not understand an integrated band or the absence of cultural markers. The fact that Matilda sings a Mariam Makeba classic with none of the emotional intensity inherent in the lyrical content leaves me questioning once again the cinematic or dramatic choices the ensemble makes here.

That Philomon is restained is a dramatic turn or shift one would not normally see in a case of infidelity.  South Africa is and was a violent territory, so Philomon's restraint when in real life, Matilda would have probably been killed is within itself a stunning and crafty literary ploy worth investigation.

I don't know. The acting is excellent and so is the music, as for the play itself and the story. . . . If you have an extra $20-120 lying around, go because the story as arranged and directed is hauntingly clever.  Visit or call (415) 749-2228.

The Suit is up through May 18, so if you are on a budget, first go see Fences in Mill Valley at Marin Theatre Company through May 11 and the world premiere of Tawawa House by  Zenobia Powell Perry, Friday, May 2, 7:30 and Sunday, May 4, 2 p.m., in Modesto, California, a collaboration between Sankofa Theater Company and Townsend Opera, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I Street


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