By Bridgette M. Redman
Some stories speak through their quiet horror. These stories can carry greater impact when the truth behind the fiction – the events of the storyteller’s life – are as tragic as the one from his imagination.
“The Suit” arrives for four performances at the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan this month, and it is a tale poignant both on stage and off.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa, who made her European stage debut touring with “The Suit,” performs as Matilda, an adulterous wife who is subjected to a cruel punishment by her husband, Philomen. He discovers the affair while it is in progress and the lover flees, leaving behind an empty suit. The husband forces his wife to treat the suit as a cherished house guest, constantly interacting with it and humiliating her with her infidelity.
Kheswa feels compelled to tell the story because its author, South African novelist Can Themba, never got to see its success. After he wrote it in the 1950s, he told his wife it would make their fortune and change their lives. However, apartheid forced a different sort of change. His work, like those of all black authors, was banned. He was exiled to Swaziland where he died of poverty and alcoholism. It would be decades before his work would again enjoy an audience.
“The story wasn’t able to be published when he needed it because of apartheid,” Kheswa explained. “And then he died. I want to tell his story.”
It’s a story told with a minimalistic set and props and few actors. Three actors use words, dance and music to tell this haunting tale. They are joined by three musicians who create a soundtrack and sometimes become a part of the story.
“You don’t need props – you don’t need much at all,” Kheswa said. “You just need two people to tell the story as best as possible.”
Underlying the story of the broken couple is the story of apartheid in Sofiatown, South Africa and the two tales interweave themes of how casually cruel people can be to each other.
Ben Brantley, critic for the New York Times, said of the show that “you may feel you’ve experienced devastation by enchantment. The sadness will linger, but so will an elating sense of this show’s enfolding magic.”
“The Suit” has taken a circuitous route to its current incarnation. Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon were the original stage adapters who produced the play at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in the 1990s. Then Peter Brook adapted that version and took it on tour as a French-language production. Working with Marie-Helene Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk, they adapted the play again to English, setting it to diverse music from such sources as Franz Schubert and Miriam Makeba.
Kheswa, who has been critically praised for her musical ability in this show, has toured the world as a featured vocalist with Wyclef Jean and in ensembles in New York. She began her professional stage career at age 16, performing in the ensemble of “The Lion King” on Broadway. Born in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa and raised in Alexandra, Johannesburg, she was trained in South Africa’s vocal traditions as well as jazz and pop music.
She praises co-directors Brook and Estienne, saying they helped to bring out the magic of the show’s sound and soul.
“(Estienne) is a great woman and a great director. She pays attention to detail and she held us to this story with sincerity,” Kheswa said. “It’s a beautiful piece – unlike most theater productions people see. We don’t spoon feed them. They’re given something and they can make something out of whatever they appreciate. We don’t beg our audience.”
“The Suit” begins its U.S. tour in Ann Arbor, with other stops including the Kennedy Center in Washington and UCLA in Los Angeles. It has already traveled Europe to great critical acclaim for the past two years.
Kheswa said audiences have fallen in love with the story, being drawn in slowly.
“(The story) is not something that happens every day, so it is shocking to people,” Kheswa said. “It is surprising. It is a very traumatic tale. But because it is traumatic and unnatural, people can relate to it.”
University Musical Society at Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Feb. 19-20 and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 21-22. $18-60. 734-764-2538. http://www.ums.org