With Peter Brook it’s the tale and not the teller that matters; many theater artists pay lip service to that idea, but Brook and his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord colleagues actually show how that’s done. And because they have more interest in the questions than the answers we become active participants in the story that springs to life in front of us.
That was ecstatically true Thursday when The Suit opened the last leg of its US tour at OZ. It’s not the first time the work of a legendary French-based artist (the British-born Brook has spent decades in Paris) has been presented in Nashville – Lula Naff brought Sarah Bernhardt to the Ryman Auditorium stage in March 1906 to play Camille, and in Feb. 1998 the mime master Marcel Marceau appeared at that venue, to give just two examples – but like those memorable cultural events it is an extraordinary experience that will grace the mind and heart for a lifetime.
With Consul General Denis Barbet on hand from France’s Consulate General in Atlanta, the superb performance featured a 1963 short story from South African writer Can Themba first adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord first performed the piece in French as Le Costume in 1999. But the bones of Themba’s strong but slender story have been fleshed out in this English-language production by additions from his journalism work and other sources by Brook’s longtime associate Marie-Hélène Estienne – a great example comes early on when Maphikela (the incredibly versatile Jordan Barbour) relates his experiences trying to gain admission to white-congregation churches in 1950’s Johannesburg, which is inspired by Themba’s own experience.
The tale centers on Philemon (the riveting Ivanno Jeremiah – the moment he tells his wife not to say “Sorry” is one electrifying event that will stay wired in my memory for a long time) and his wife Matilda (the supremely engaging Nonhlanhia Kheswa – watching her beautifully convey Matilda’s joys and sorrows is a rare privilege). All seems well with their relationship in Johannesburg’s bustling Sophiatown community until Maphikela alerts his friend to Matilda’s infidelity. Her young lover leaves his suit behind when Philemon finds the pair in the couple’s bedroom, and the husband decides his wife should treat the suit as their honored guest. Violence and a scandal are seemingly avoided, but at what cost to the once happy couple?
The mix of this adulterous tale with references to apartheid-era repression (including the forced removal of Sophiatown residents when South Africa’s government razed the community in the 1950s) creates a potent presentation that’s further enhanced by an international selection of works under the musical direction of composer Franck Krawczyk. Those selections range from Chilean melodies to such African songs as “Nytilo-Nytilo (Bird-Song)” and “Forbidden Games” made famous by Miriam Makeba (and sung so wonderfully by Kheswa), Franz Schubert‘s “Death and the Maiden” and J.S. Bach‘s “St. Matthew Passion” as well as a certain song made famous by Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” – which Barbour sang in such devastating fashion that several hours after hearing his heartbreaking rendition I’m still feeling its emotional aftershocks.
The musicians in this show – Arthur Astier on guitar, Mark Christine on piano and Mark Kavuma on trumpet – play those selections and others with a clarity and directness that fills our senses, and they also act quite well in various roles that fill out the Sophiatown portrait. Another person whose work should be noted in this production is Assistant Director Rikki Henry, who does so much more than that title normally indicates.
Oria Puppo’s scenic elements and costume design clearly frame but appropriately never intrude on the play – this is happily ( and de rigueur for a Brook piece) not one of those theatrical events where story is overtaken by setting. Philippe Vialatte’s tale-focused lighting is perfect accompaniment as well – the amber wash that takes hold when Philemon finds the illicit lovers is one example of his terrific design.
The Suit is told with thoughtful simplicity that inspires us to profound feelings. This is theater at its noblest, and in programming terms another great gift from the community-loving folks at OZ.
The Suit continues today (May 23) and Saturday at OZ (6172 Cockrill Bend Circle). Shows start at 8 p.m.; before today’s show ticketholders can sample South African wines and food beginning at 6:30 p.m. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
RELATED STORY: ‘The Suit’ From Iconic Peter Brook & Colleagues Comes to OZ