Nonhlanhla Kheswa: The Voice of The Suit

Monday, April 21, 2014

By Dan Rubin

The incredible South African actor/singer Nonhlanhla Kheswa has been performing the role of Matilda in The Suit since it premiered in Paris in 2012. She has traveled the world with the show, to London, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Shanghai, Beijing, and New York, just to name a few places. She has loved meeting people everywhere she has visited, but her favorite city so far has been Tbilisi, Georgia: “They suffered a war recently. . . . It reminded me so much of Alexandra, the [Johannesburg] township I grew up in, because it’s a developing country. The people’s spirits are so lively. They are just thankful that they are alive. They are thankful they’re able to breathe. And they have such an immense love for theater and art, so I felt like I was at home.”

Kheswa never trained formally as an actor; in 1998, while she was still in high school, she was cast in the film Soul City. On the heels of that, she joined the cast of Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway; she stayed with the show for five years. New York was a playground for Kheswa’s explorations of vocal performance. She became a regular member of hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean’s ensembles, while entrenching herself in the city’s jazz scene and Brooklyn’s eclectic youth-music culture. She started her own group, Kheswa & Her Martians, which is “steeped in the hard-bop accents of Jackie McLean and Gary Bartz, the spirituality of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and, naturally, the diverse strands of the South African jazz subculture.” They released their debut album, Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz, in 2013, which you can listen to online. A number of the tracks on the album are songs that Kheswa sings in The Suit.

Kheswa’s experience as a singer prepared her well for playing Matilda, an aspiring singer whose dreams are undermined not only by the racist laws of the oppressive apartheid government, but also by her adoring husband, Philemon, who prefers to keep his lovely wife at home. “She wants to do things, but Philemon wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and prepares breakfast for her so that she can stay in the house,” Kheswa explains. “She wants to be a singer, but he says, ‘No, no, you don’t need to be out there embarrassing yourself!’ He wants her to stay home and be beautiful. ‘I’ll do everything for you.’”

Kheswa continues, “[Matilda] knows that there’s something more inside of her. She loves Philemon as much as Philemon loves her. . . . But you have to realize that whatever it is that you love, you can also kill by overloving.”

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Suit in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to The Suit visit

Venus’s Revenge

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In the ancient Greek tradition, Venus was called Aphrodite, and she was a goddess born out of revenge. Uranus, primeval god of the sky and father of the Titans, cast his insurgent sons, the Cyclopses, deep into the Underworld. In retribution, the mother goddess, Gaia, persuaded Cronus, youngest of the Titans, to attack his father. While Uranus slept, Cronus castrated him and threw the dismembered parts down to earth. Where the flesh landed in the Mediterranean Sea, the water began to foam. Soon after, Aphrodite emerged.

The Birth of Venus (1483–85), by Sandro Botticelli
When Aphrodite entered the assembly of the Olympian gods on Mount Olympus, it was immediately clear that she would be trouble. In a room of divine beauties, all eyes were on her. “Each one of [the gods] prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so greatly were they amazed at [her] beauty,” sings an ancient Homeric hymn. Assessing the situation, Zeus quickly married off his adopted daughter to the steady-but-lame god of the forge, Hephaestus. This infamously mismatched pairing pushed Aphrodite into a series of adulterous affairs. The most notorious of these was with the war-hungry god Ares, but her promiscuity extended to other Olympians: Hermes, Poseidon, and Dionysus.

Aphrodite could incite and direct desire as she pleased. “There is nothing among the blessed gods or among mortal men that has escaped Aphrodite,” the Homeric hymn continues. “Even the heart of Zeus, who delights in thunder, is led astray by her; though he is greatest of all and has the lot of highest majesty, she beguiles even his wise heart whensoever she pleases, and mates him with mortal women, unknown to Hera.” Annoyed to be the victim of Aphrodite’s whims, all-powerful Zeus shamed the goddess by making her fall in love with a series of mortals. These included the beautiful Adonis (whom Aphrodite reluctantly shared with the goddess Persephone) and the Trojan hero Anchises (father of Aeneas).

When duly honored, Aphrodite could be a powerful ally. Famously, during the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan prince gave her a golden apple inscribed with the phrase “To the fairest,” infuriating the goddess’s competitors, Hera and Athena. As his reward, Paris was given the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. The Greek prince Hippomenes prayed to Aphrodite for assistance in his pursuit of the princess Atalanta: “Come, lovely Cytherea [Aphrodite], prosper the deed I dare and with thy grace nourish the flame of love that thou hast lit.” Soon Atalanta was his. Likewise, when Pygmalion, king of Cyprus, fell in love with an ivory statue he had sculpted, he prayed to Aphrodite, and the cold stone came to life.

Phaedre, (1880), by Alexandre Cabanel
On the other hand, Hades hath no fury like Aphrodite scorned. Aphrodite gave Helen to Paris, but Helen was already married to the Greek king Menelaus. Years earlier, Menelaus had promised to sacrifice a hundred head of cattle to Aphrodite should he win Helen’s hand. Following the wedding, however, the king failed to honor his pledge, and the wrathful goddess sent his trophy wife to Troy—igniting the epic Trojan War. Helen’s father, the Spartan king Tyndareus, likewise neglected to honor the goddess. Both of his daughters (Helen’s sister was Clytemnestra, the betrayed wife of Agamemnon, who watched her husband murder her daughter) were cursed with unlucky marriages. When King Theseus’s son, Hippolytus, devoted himself to the chaste goddess Artemis, an insulted Aphrodite bewitched his stepmother, Phaedre, causing her to be seized with a wild passion for her stepson that resulted in their gruesome deaths. Other examples of her fury abound.

When the Trojan Anchises discovered he had lain with the goddess of beauty, he was duly overcome with terror. He knew that when a mortal and immortal intertwined, it was often at the mortal’s peril. He prayed for pity. Aphrodite comforted her one-night-stand: she promised him no harm, and she promised him a great son. But should Anchises boast of their indiscretion, all bets were off. “Refrain from naming me,” she warned the man. “Avoid the rage of the gods.” After imparting this sound advice, she disappeared into the windy sky.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Venus in Fur in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to Venus in Fur visit

The Venus in Fur Symposium Discussion

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Venus in Fur symposium discussion with Race Bannon, Founder of Kink Aware Professionals and author of Learning The Ropes: A Basic Guide to Safe and Fun SM Lovemaking, and Monika Greenleaf, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.  Click below to watch the recording.

Click here to buy tickets and learn more about Venus in Fur.

Titian’s Venus with a Mirror

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

In Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs—which David Ives adapted into his play Venus in Fur—Severin von Kushemski uses as a bookmark Titian’s painting Venus with a Mirror. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was born around 1490 in the Italian Alps and moved to Venice when he was just a boy to learn the art of painting. His teacher was Giovanni Bellini, the official painter of Venice. By 1510, Titian had established himself, and after Bellini’s death he took his place as the official painter of the Venetian Republic. He became internationally famous, painting portraits of such members of nobility as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III. A master of many genres of painting, from portraits to nudes to mythological and religious scenes, he died in 1576.

Venus with a Mirror, 1555, by Titian
Venus with a Mirror, completed in 1555, is one of Titian’s more famous paintings. Venus adheres to Renaissance standards of beauty: blond hair, fair skin blushing pink, red lips, and arched brows. In a melding of antiquity and modernity, she appears in the classical modest Venus pose (which Titian based on a Roman statue), but she is sitting on a velvet wrap lined with fur, looking into a mirror while two cupids attend to her. The texture of the painting—the gold embroidery on the fur, the softness of her skin, the iridescence of the cupids’ wings—is evidence of Titian’s mastery of the brush stroke.

Of his extensive body of work, Venus with a Mirror may have been one of Titian’s favorites: the original remained in his studio until his death, more than 20 years after he painted it. Perhaps he simply kept it to use as a model: he and his assistants produced 15 copies and variants. But Venus’s reflection in the mirror engenders an ambiguous relationship with the viewer, and, by extension, the artist. Her reflected gaze appears to be aimed at the viewer. If Titian imagined that Venus was staring at him, it might explain his attachment to the painting—it certainly contributed to Severin’s obsession.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Venus in Fur in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to Venus in Fur visit
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