Remembering Sophiatown

Friday, May 16, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

Can Themba’s short story “The Suit” takes place in Sophiatown, a small suburb of Johannesburg, in the mid 1950s. The township was a tangle of contradictions during the middle of the twentieth century. It was one of the only places in all of South Africa where black people could legally own property. Although the location wasn’t great (it was near a sewer) and the township was small, the prospect of some freedom in a environment of oppressive apartheid laws was enticing for South Africans of color—including people with mixed and Asian heritage. This led to overcrowding and slum conditions, which led to violence and poverty, but Sophiatown’s unique diversity cultivated a vibrant community of art and culture; some of the best South African musicians and writers of the 1950s lived in Sophiatown.

We Won't Move, Sophiatown,
by Jürgen Schadeberg
(jurgenschadeberg.com)
With its need for total racial segregation, however, the Afrikaner National Party found Sophiatown’s existence unacceptable. The government declared that the majority of the housing was in need of immediate repair or demolition. Fixing the housing problem for the current residents was never the government’s intent, however: on a rainy morning in February 1955, the National Party sent armed policemen and trucks to begin forced evictions of the residents. Over the next four years, more than 65,000 Sophiatowners were displaced to various government-controlled townships. Sophiatown was bulldozed, rebuilt, and renamed Triomf—and resettled with white residents.

For the artists who were once inspired by Sophiatown, its destruction was symbolic of white Afrikaner triumph over black South African art and freedom. Triomf became a working-class white neighborhood and remained that way until apartheid rule was overthrown in the 1990s. In 2006, Johannesburg’s mayor restored the name Sophiatown. Residents claimed it didn’t matter: “A name is a name,” they said. But the mayor felt differently: “A name is something that gives identity to people. . . . Sophiatown is the past we dare not forget.”

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

A Brief History of The Suit

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

By Dan Rubin

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in The Suit,
Photo by Johan Persson.
Can Themba’s “The Suit” was first published in the inaugural issue of a South African journal called the Classic in 1963. In 1966, while Themba was in exile in Swaziland, the South African apartheid government declared him a statutory communist and banned his work. It remained unavailable in his homeland until 1982. In 1994, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon adapted “The Suit” into a play, which premiered at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.

Director Peter Brook learned about Mutloatse and Simon’s stage adaptation of The Suit when he read about the play in a newspaper article. He requested the script, which he shared with longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. “Ah! Yes, this is remarkable,” he remembers her saying. “But it’s only like a first draft. We could do it in our theater in Paris,” she told him, referring to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, home of Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research, “so we’ll do it in French.” They put Le costume, as they called the piece, in front of a Parisian audience in December 1999 as part of a season of South African plays, after which it toured quickly started touring the world.

Ivanno Jeremiah in The Suit,
Photo by
Pascal Victor/ArtComArt.
Despite the show’s success, the creators were not satisfied with it. They realized the piece wanted to be done in its original English. “[The French version] wasn’t mature,” remembers Brook. “It wasn’t ready. Like with many projects, we waited for the right moment to return to it.” In 2012, they remounted Le costume as The Suit, an English version that incorporated the musical direction of Franck Krawczyk.

Revisiting the tale a decade after first exploring it, the creators realized that their audience was 20-years removed from the realities and knowledge of South African apartheid. In order to flesh out this world, they interlaced excerpts from articles Themba wrote for Drum magazine. They pulled a story about black people being denied entry to white churches from Themba’s investigative report “Brothers in Christ” and a story about the dangers of riding the commuter trains from his “Terror on the Trains.” Without the presence of apartheid onstage, Brook explains, “we couldn’t tell this story and make it even remotely real.” He continues, “The situation in The Suit couldn’t have arisen without that endless pressure, hour after hour, minute after minute, of people living in those brutal situations.”

They presented The Suit in Paris in April 2012. It began its international tour in May 2012 and has been touring the world ever since.

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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