“Sophiatown.”

By: Junction Avenue Theatre Company
Featuring: Arthur Zitha, Barileng Malebye, Christine van Hees, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Joel Zuma, Nicholas Nkuna, Sechaba Ramphele, Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala
Directed by: Malcolm Purkey
Associate director: Gina Shmukler
Choreography: Sonia Thandazile Radebe, Nhlanhla Mahlangu
Lighting design: Denis Hutchinson
Costume and set design: Sarah Roberts
Musical director: Arthur Molepo
10 April 2016, 15:00
John Kani Theatre, The Market Theatre

Sophiatown, is definitely one of the highlights from South Africa’s struggle theatre canon. It is simultaneously a touching tragedy and an entertaining celebration. The play documents and immortalises the bygone cultural hub that was Sophiatown and therefore demands to be revived every now and again.

The play is set in Mamariti’s house. She is a shebeen queen who brews her own beer and rents rooms out for an extra income. Her gangster son, Mingus, also lives in the house with his girlfriend, Princess. Lulu, Mamariti’s youngest, is still at school. Jakes is a journalist who also resides in Mamariti’s house. He advertises a room in the house, specifying that the lodger should be a white Jewish girl from Yeoville. Jakes then plans to write a series of articles about this social anomaly for Drum Magazine. When Ruth Golden answers the ad and comes to live in Mamariti’s house, all of the characters are confronted with the implications of their own race and roots within the context of apartheid South Africa. The play ends with the characters splitting in different directions as they are forcibly removed from Sophiatown.

For this revival, many of the key members of the original production were involved, most notably, Malcolm Purkey, founding member of Junction Avenue Theatre Company and original director of the play. And yet, the production was not a nostalgic rehashing of an old script. The play is firmly positioned in its historical context with three panels of photos, pages from Drum Magazine, and artwork by William Kentridge forming the backdrop to the performance. The audience is, therefore, asked to re-examine the play as if it were an artefact.

One of my favourite things about the John Kani theatre is the way that the stage reaches into the auditorium. There is no proscenium arch, and the distance between the performers and the audience is minimal, as a result. This works especially well with plays addressing issues of social injustice, such as Sophiatown. The audience is pulled into the action on stage, not only through an emotional engagement with the fictional world portrayed, but also by their physical proximity to the performers. In this performance, the stage was framed with two telegraph poles. Their lines reached into the auditorium, blurring any definite line between performer and spectator.

Sarah Roberts’ set design was functional and aesthetically pleasing. The space looked realistic and lived-in, but with rostra and tables, also provided the choreographers with a multi-levelled space to stage the musical numbers in. The space between the panels forming the backdrop and the acting area was filled with boxes. This is a very effective way to fill up a stage while staying within a modest budget. In this case, the boxes were also a foreboding of what is to come: the audience knows that the residents of Sophiatown were forcibly removed under the Groups Area Act of the apartheid regime. When the inevitable happens, and the residents of Mamariti’s house need to pack up and leave for Meadowlands, these boxes are used as props.

However, despite dealing with the fragility of human dignity, the play never becomes sentimental. The action is interrupted from time to time with musical numbers, in a manner reminiscent of Brecht. It not only provides the audience with a break in which to consider what they have seen, but it also shows the audience glimpses into the rich culture of Sophiatown. Furthermore, the characters are not shown in a one-dimensional way, constantly mulling over their cruel and undeserved circumstances. The audience also sees them when they are playful, as when Mingus and Princess return from seeing an American film, pretending to be Americans and joking with each other.

Overall, the actors succeed brilliantly in balancing tragedy and celebration in this way. However, there was an unfortunate slump in the energy directly after intermission. It could possibly be attributed to a very restless audience, fidgeting with bags of chips (why does the Market Theatre even sell chips during intermission?!). Luckily, the actors picked up the energy again and delivered the end of the play with the intensity that it deserves.

The play has a very strong emotional appeal, especially towards the end when the characters are unable to bridge the divide between them. Ruth becomes part of Mamariti’s household and she and Jakes fall in love, but when crisis strikes, she remains an outsider. As with the names of the fahfee numbers that she practices by herself every night, life in Sophiatown remains a foreign language that she can never fully learn. And yet, Sophiatown implores the spectator to keep on trying.

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