Writer: Sibusiso Mkwanazi
“Umtsetse”. That is one of those words that seems not to exist in the English language. It is the “fold” that is ironed into a pair of pants. This line separates the men from the boys and the girls from the ladies. Can Themba’s The Suit does this with surgical precision as it clearly differentiates right from wrong, no matter the justification.
James Ngcobo’s adaptation very much catches you off-guard as it starts off pretending to be a light-hearted comedy. Doting husband Philemon delivers clever Tsotsitaal one-liners with his friend Maphikela about life as black men in South Africa, just before the apartheid regime would forcibly remove them from Sophiatown.
Then the entire mood morphs suddenly when Philemon catches his wife Matilda in bed with a young man, who manages to escape – leaving his suit behind. That is when the audience is absorbed into a tragedy as the world’s most loving husband transforms into the world’s most vicious partner.
As Philemon orders Matilda to treat the suit with the same hospitality that she would show to a guest: share meals with them, share their bedroom, go for walks with them, etc., you start realising that mental abuse is far worse than the physical type. Set in the Fifties, the production still resonates with the nation as South Africa is still shocked by the disappearance of Karabo Mokoena, who was found burned to death. As unfathomable as it seems – the heinous crime of gender-based violence is met in our modern times as it was when Themba first penned the short story. There are those who think that victims must have done something to deserve the treatment they receive. They think that Matilda cheated on Philemon, therefore, she had it coming.
It is a deep understanding of this skewed reality that makes the entire cast simply impeccable on stage as they draw on real life and translate it into what is surely award-winning performances. When Matilda cries for her lost dream of being a singer – which she ironically gave up for her husband’s sake – the audience’s soul cries with her. Yet, when Philemon bottles his anger towards his wife and employs emotional warfare, some are bound to feel he is justified.
By the use of haunting Kofifi-style jazz music, engaging choreography, disturbing images projected on the wall and hurtful dialogue, The Suit ensures you never doubt which side of the mtsetse you are on. It presents you with only two options, and you have to make a stand. Are men trash, or do you believe otherwise, and why?