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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 : 2008-07-27)

The now legendary area of Sophiatown, which once existed just outside Johannesburg, was a vibrant and buzzing suburb with a cosmopolitan mix where gangsters and shebeen queens rubbed shoulders with liberal thinkers, journalists, writers, musicians and politicians of all races.

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. The area generated some of South Africa’s top artistic personalities - among them Dolly Rathebe, Can Themba and Todd Matshikiza. In 1955, the apartheid government of the time decided that the area needed to be destroyed, all the homes demolished and its inhabitants moved to Meadowlands. Thus was destroyed one of South Africa’s most vibrant communities.

The musical Sophiatown was created by Malcolm Purkey and the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in the 80’s when there was a unprecedented resistance to the South African National Party government. Set in November, 1954, just before the area was destroyed by government decree, the show focuses on a typical family and their response to the removals.

Last seen at the Catalina Theatre two years ago in a production by the Drama Department of Technikon Natal (now the Durban Institute of Technology), Sophiatown returns to this venue, this time re-staged and directed by Daisy Spencer with an effective set design by Themi Venturas and costume design by Kevin Ellis.

At its peak Drum magazine had a readership of 450,000 copies and was distributed as far as the US, offering stories emanating from Sophiatown, Victoria Street and District Six. Loyiso MacDonald gives a consistent performance as Jakes, who writes for Drum and is torn between his journalistic drive, his sympathy for the family he lives with and his feelings for Ruth Golden.

Playing the role of the gangster Mingus with suitable mercurial emotion is Bonginkosi Khulu with Sifiso Simamane solid as the numbers-driven philosopher Fahfee. Bringing her usual charm and control to the role, Kajal Bagwandeen was Ruth Golden, the Jewish girl who takes up residence in Sophiatown. Robert Collins was a delight as Charlie, keeping the character real without caricaturing him.

Zinhle Dladla looked as comfortable with the role of the spunky Lulu as if she’d been playing it for months, Samkelisiwe Hlophe was a forthright and sympathetic mother and Zukiswa A Ndunge played the glamorous Princess with aplomb.

My comments from the 2006 production also apply to this one. “I missed 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 – they 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.” A props note - the boxes carrying Mingus’s stolen goods clearly had very little in them when they needed to be much heavier.

Sophiatown, as I’ve said before, is a beautifully-written piece with clearly drawn characters. It’s a warm, funny, human and poignant glimpse into an important section of South African history.

Sophiatown runs from July 21 to August 3 with shows nightly at 20h00 from Tuesday to Saturday (Sunday at 18h00) and no show on Monday. There are special 11h00 performances for schools. For more information or to book, contact the Catalina Theatre on 031 305 6889. – Caroline Smart




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