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SOPHIATOWN (article first published : 2006-08-20)

In April, 2002, I was impressed by four male actors appearing in a production by the Drama Department of Technikon Natal (now the Durban Institute of Technology) of Sophiatown directed by Jerry Pooe. Itís good to see two of them now holding their own in professional mainstream theatre in a current production of the musical currently running at the Catalina Theatre.

In the 1980ís, Malcolm Purkey and the Junction Avenue Theatre company in Johannesburg paid tribute to the now-legendary area of Sophiatown with a musical of the same name. Sophiatown is set in November, 1954, just before the area was destroyed by government decree.

Up till then, Sophiatown was a vibrant and buzzing suburb with a wild cosmopolitan mix. It was a freehold township which meant that it was one of the rare places in South African urban areas at the time where blacks were allowed to own land. Sophiatown generated a strong creative culture, particularly in the field of jazz, theatre and journalism producing names like Dolly Rathebe, Todd Matshikisa and Can Themba, to mention a few.

In the current Catalina production of Sophiatown, Siphesihle Zondi and Jabulani Mfeka reprise their 2002 roles as the mercurial gangster Mingus and the numbers-driven philosopher Fafi and their performances are as strong and focused as they were four years ago.

Tall and imposing Menzi Biyela plays the journalist Jakes, a lone voice of clarity in the volatile mix of the household. The part of the endearingly simple Charlie is a scene stealing cinch for any actor and Bhekani Biyela makes the role his own.

Gugu Mzobe gives a moving performance as Mama Riti and Sindi Ngidi was a delight as the feisty schoolgirl Lulu. Both actresses were recently seen in the Playhouse musical, Jimbo. Playing the complex role of Ruth Golden is the ultra-slender Lulu Sofilas but donít be misled by her physical slenderness, this is an actress to watch. Silindile Msomi looked stunning in Kevin Ellis designs as the self-centred fashion-plate, Princess.

What I felt this production lacked was a sense of the surrounding noise and vibrancy of the area as well as a sense of urgency and confusion when the imminent destruction of Sophiatown approaches. This is a family trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Alright, that dreadful overhead extractor pipe makes it almost impossible for actors to give vocally sensitive and quiet performances unless they are miked and too many background effects would have exacerbated the position further. However, I do think we should have heard the dogs barking Ė they do play an important role - and in moments of non-dialogue, sounds of people in the distance arguing or playing music with occasional car hooters, etc. Oh, and a big ooops! - not a good idea to put placards on the back of what can clearly be seen as old Catalina posters, no matter how hard the cast try to shield them!

Having said that, Sophiatown is always beautifully-written piece with clearly drawn characters offering a compelling and entertaining glimpse into an important section of South African history. With well-directed moves, the eight-member cast is to be commended for coping with a production of this size on a busy set that fills the Catalina stage. The final narrative scene is very moving.

Sophiatown runs at the Catalina Theatre from August 10 to 27. Public performances take place from August 15 to 27 from Thursdays to Saturdays at 20h00 (Sundays 18h00) Tickets R65 (R55 pensioners and students). Performances for schools take place from August 10 to 25 at 11h00 and tickets are R30 per pupil (one teacher free for every 10 students). All bookings through Thandeka on 031 305 6889. Ė Caroline Smart




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