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 act-sf.org/thesuit
 
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