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A CurtainUp Review

Scenes From The New WorldScenes From The New WorldWoza Afrika: After ApartheidProgram A: The Suit
By Les Gutman

After CurtainUp's recent Berkshires review of Jon Robin Baitz's The Film Society which glimpses at life in apartheid South Africa, the Lincoln Center Festival 97 dramatic series, Woza Afrika: After Apartheid, begged for our attention and comparison. Coming on the tenth anniversary of the well-remembered Lincoln Center series of South Africa Township protest plays, Woza Afrika!, you would reasonably expect this to be an update -- a reflection of South Africa's best political theatre today.

You would be wrong. Instead of demanding attention to political issues, this series -- developed by Lincoln Center with an all-star team of advisors on South African theatre -- takes a more subtle approach. It posits that, if you select the very best current theater in South Africa, from the very best theater companies, and with the very best actors, you will gain the best understanding of life, thought, culture and values in present day South Africa. Not only is this a splendid idea, it is also a great treat.

This is not to say the series is apolitical. Rather, it is not exclusively or intentionally political and thus, in appearance at least, refreshingly lacking in agenda.Job Kubatsi, an immediately lovable character actor from the Township tradition (who appears in The Suit) spoke to a South African newspaper in 1994 of " a legacy of apartheid which has not encouraged us to embrace the arts as a mirror image of our culture and identity." If nothing else, the plays in this series seem primed to counteract that condition.

The worst thing that can be said of Woza Afrika is that the schedule is so brief many people will miss it. It consists of four programs, the first two running less than a week each in sequence and the last two running for a week in tandem. The terrific first offering, The Suit, highlighted below, will be gone before most hear about it.

The Suit is based on a well-known short story by Can Themba, described as the Dylan Thomas of South Africa. It was first produced by the highly regarded Market Theatre, and originally directed by the late Barney Simon, that theater's founder and artistic director. The cast here is the original. It has a tone, style and sophistication that can surely be called distinctive. Every element, from the language of the stage adaptation (by Mothobi Mutloatse), to the staging (here by John Matshikiza), to the remarkable lighting and to the elegant flute of Thomas Masemola, is thoroughly fresh and clever. The four actors fill the vast expanse of stage at the John Jay College Theater with ease.

Using a stunning blend of character portraits, storytelling, mime and even song and dance, a tale of love, betrayal and revenge is woven. The production is also filled with laughter and a brand of humor that certainly transcends its Township origins.

Philemon (Sello Maake ka Ncube) discovers his wife Matilda (Stella Khumalo) in bed with another man. Escaping in his underwear, the " visitor" leaves his suit behind. Devastated, Philemon's revenge is his insistence that Matilda continue to treat her visitor as an honored guest. Given a prominent (if eerie) position in their home, the Suit (on its hanger) is served food at every meal, and is even taken on Sunday strolls in the neighborhood. It becomes a constant, tormenting and embarassing reminder of her infidelity. Eventually, it crushes her.

The acting overflows with talent. Especially noteworthy are Ms. Khumalo, who sings as beautifully as she acts, and Mr. Kubatsi, playing an older man in multiple supporting roles. He quickly wins over the audience without compromising the tension between the self-defeating anger his memories elicit and the survival instincts his personality demands.

Following The Suit, and also at the John Jay College location, is a double bill, Ma Dladla's Beat, a rural woman's story of searching for her husband in the big city, and Bergville Stories, the only play in the series that pays direct homage to the Township protest plays of the earlier Woza Afrika! series. Bergville was written and is directed by the series director, Duma Ndlovu.

In the following week, the Laguardia Theater will host a new domestic drama, On My Birthday, by a young up-and-coming playwright, Aubrey Sekhabe, who also directs it. This is perhaps the most advanced work of South African theatre included in the show, representing a progression to issues and controversies (such as domestic violence) which were left on the back-burner in the early days of post-apartheid theatre. Rather than looking back, it looks at present-day Pretoria and the new crises people must confront. The other offering of the week will be another double bill: Once a Pirate, described as " A Buccaneer's Guide to Survival" (although it should be noted that the Pirates referred to are a Soweto soccer team), and White Men With Weapons, one white man's look back at apartheid.

A final note: " Woza" means " arise," with a connotation much different in 1997 than it had ten years before.

based on a story by Can Themba, adapted by Mothobi Mutloatse
starring Sello Maake ka Ncube and Stella Khumulo 
with Job Kubatsi and Alistair Dube
Directed by John Matshikiza
John Jay College Theater, 10th Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets (212) 721-6500

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