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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SOPHIATOWN (article first published : 2000-10-18)

One disastrous morning in 1955, bulldozers arrived at the freehold suburb of Sophiatown outside Johannesburg and over a period of days systematically destroyed the homes of what had been one of the most vibrant communities in the history of South Africa. Sophiatown was filled with some of the finest jazz singers, journalists and writers South Africa has seen – not to mention a thriving community of gangsters!

In the 80’s, Malcolm Purkey and Junction Avenue Theatre Company paid tribute to this era with their musical Sophiatown. This year, the play is a set matric drama syllabus text and the Department of Education and Culture requested the University of Natal Durban’s drama and performance studies programme to stage the work. Sophiatown ran at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from October 10 to 14

Director Chris Hurst has stayed true to the original script and created a strong and moving production with a cast of talented students. During rehearsals, Chris was struck by the parallel between the text of the play and that of the Freedom Charter which features in the audiovisuals providing a backdrop to the simple shanty-town set. He also devised a prologue which placed the conflict in a wider African context.

Chris has extracted good performances from his cast who are mainly second-year students. Jakes, the fiery boxing journalist, is played with consistency and commitment by Musa Hlatshwayo. Heavy-browed Ntokozo “Nqenqeleza” Maphisa is suitably volatile as the wheeling and dealing Mingus. Giving a humorous performance as Mamarati is Nompumelelo Mdima and Nompucuko Angela Bolowana is an entrancing and lively Lulu. Both third-year students and displaying a maturity of dramatic skill are Natalie Toyne, endearing as the adventurous and gutsy Ruth Golden, and Rakau Boikanyo (recently seen in War Cry) as the numbers-loving Mr Fahfee.

Tall, imposing and passionate, with a hair style of the period, Rakau looks remarkably like a young Nelson Mandela. Film-maker Anant Singh should take note when he eventually gets to cast A Long Walk to Freedom!

The surprise of the evening is Roberta Mthethwa who plays the spunky pleasure-loving Princess. If she puts in a performance like that while still a first year student, this is definitely a talent to watch!

Playing the lovable Charlie, Mingus’s stooge, is Sduduzo Kawula. Always a delight on stage, he is the show’s musical director. The songs are all sung a capella and the harmonies were well placed although the first number tended to drown Jakes’ prologue.

There are some delightful scenes such as rendering of Blue Moon; or when Mingus asks Jake to write a love letter for him (“Tell her I’m an honest gangster”) or when Ruth helps Lulu with her essay on the subject of her family (“There are different sorts of truths”). The cast handled the comedy well and the final eviction scene was extremely moving.

I feel sure Malcolm Purkey and Junction Theatre Company would approve!




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