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SOPHIATOWN (article first published : 2002-04-18)

In the 1980’s, Malcolm Purkey and the Junction Avenue Theatre Company paid tribute to the now-legendary area of Sophiatown with a musical of the same name.

By the end of 1954, the geographical Sophiatown was a vibrant and buzzing freehold suburb with a wild cosmopolitan mix. It generated a strong creative culture, particularly in the field of jazz, theatre and journalism – names like Dolly Rathebe, Todd Matshikisa and Can Themba, to mention a few.

The last time Durban saw a production of Sophiatown was in October, 2000, when the University of Natal’s performance studies programme presented a very creditable production at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre.

Technikon Natal, the other major tertiary institution offering drama studies, opened their production last night in the Courtyard Theatre. As did the UND production, it features a young and energetic cast. Many of the performers – and in a lot of cases, their parents - weren’t even born by 1955 at the time of the National Party government’s enforced removal and resettlement of Sophiatown’s population.

Jerry Pooe has directed the show with his customary sure hand, keen eye and strong sense of comedy. He has pulled highly competent performances from the students, many of whom are appearing in their first major production. The dance sequences are spirited and dynamic. Pooe’s Sophiatown proves that, while the bulldozers may have destroyed the dwelling places, the spirit of Sophiatown lives on more than half a century later.

Technikon’s Sophiatown is memorable for the strong and clearly-drawn characters of the four leading male roles: Skhumbule Mqombothi (journalist Jakes), Siphesihle Zondi (gangster Mingus), Jabulani Mfeka (numbers-driven philosopher Fahfee) and Sduduzo Majola. The latter impressed with spot-on timing and an extremely well-controlled interpretation of the feeble-minded and invariably scene-stealing Charlie. A fine comedy actor in the making here.

With his high cheekbones and lowering forehead, Skhumbule Mqombothi uncannily resembles a young Nelson Mandela. Looking back on my review of the UND production, I said the same thing about their actor who played Jakes. Perhaps the influence is lodged in Jakes’s ancient typewriter!

Another clearly thought-out and engaging performance came from Farla Simon as the spunky but confused Ruth Golden. Others who impressed were Pinki Mtshali (Lulu), Bongiwe Chiliza (Princess) and Chamain Mpofu (Mamariti). Pleasantly surprising, as these performers hadn’t had a chance to shine earlier in the show, were some excellent monologues in the final scene.

Problems for me were bad articulation which made many speeches incomprehensible and some abrupt lighting cues. Also with their scenes fairly hastily played, I didn’t get a strong enough feeling of menace and callousness from the police contingent. This meant that the action wasn’t able to tip too far into the dark side which undeniably existed at the time.

Sophiatown runs at 19h00 until April 2002 at the Courtyard Theatre on Techikon Natal’s Berea Campus. Book at Computicket – Caroline Smart




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