‘The Suit’ at Brooklyn Academy of Music
It’s our awareness of the possibilities for sweetness within that life that lends “The Suit” much of its sting. Its fablelike story unfolds in Sophiatown, a poor but vital suburb of Johannesburg that flourished in the 1940s and ’50s as a center of black culture (especially music) and has since acquired mythic status in South African memory. “The home of truth, our place,” is how the show’s narrator (Jared McNeill) describes it. Within that world live a couple who, when we first see them, wrapped in each other’s arms in bed one rainy morning, would appear to be the very image of marital contentment: Philomen (William Nadylam) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). Both husband and wife deliver separate encomiums, Matilda in soaring song, to the beauty within their existence, despite its privation.
Their Eden collapses that same day. Philomen, having been tipped off by a friend, rushes home from work to find his wife in the arms of a lover (Rikki Henry, in one of many roles), who escapes through the bedroom window in his underwear. His suit is left behind, to become the instrument of Philomen’s whimsical and cruel revenge upon his wife.
I won’t describe the forms that this revenge takes, except to say that the suit becomes an active participant in an unhappy ménage à trois. As Mr. Nadylam executes Philomen’s retribution, with a mix of sorrow and tight-lidded rage, you understand exactly why the narrator has told us earlier that this story could take place only in a land of repression. Like the apartheid-spawned violence and humiliation that the play’s characters trade frightened stories about, the suit casts an inescapable and blighting shadow on Philomen and Matilda’s private world.
This makes “The Suit” sound grim. It isn’t. This is partly a matter of the witty inventiveness of the production, lighted by Philippe Vialatte and designed by Oria Puppo, which creates an entire township from its small cast. (The fine, chameleon musicians — Arthur Astier, Raphael Chambouvet and David Dupuis — help fill out the roster of citizens.)
More important, time and again we feel the exultation that caged birds find in song. It is the great wish of Matilda (whom Ms. Kheswa presents as a ravishing blend of self-possession and perplexity) to become a singer. And when she performs at a women’s club, with the three male actors doing a jaunty backup, you may find tears in your eyes, because the sense of relief is so ecstatic. And because you know it can only be fleeting.
Conversely, when Mr. McNeill performs “Strange Fruit,” the song about lynching in the American South made famous by Billie Holiday, the purity of his voice and directness of his manner transform a ballad of destruction into an enduring victory for art. It’s a promise that though the music may end for Matilda and for Sophiatown — which would be razed soon after “The Suit” takes place — it never truly stops.