Diverse community: Malcolm Purkey, centre, was part of the team that workshopped Sophiatown in the 1980s. He returns to direct the play, which paints a colourful picture of the Johannesburg suburb at the Market Theatre, Picture: SUPPLIED
Diverse community: Malcolm Purkey, centre, was part of the team that workshopped Sophiatown in the 1980s. He returns to direct the play, which paints a colourful picture of the Johannesburg suburb at the Market Theatre, Picture: SUPPLIED

When the musical Sophiatown was staged at the Market Theatre in Newtown in 2016 as part of the theatre’s 40th anniversary, it was meant to run for six days. However, seats at the production were packed and three more shows were added, which quickly sold out too.

And in March, when Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina was staged at the State Theatre in Pretoria, more than 25,000 tickets were sold ahead of its opening. Ngema announced that Sarafina would tour the country for at least three years after its season ended at the State Theatre.

Now the Market Theatre has brought back Sophiatown for a longer season. Its director, Malcolm Purkey, is confident the huge John Kani Theatre will be filled until the run ends on May 14.

There is hunger for well-crafted and well-executed theatre steeped in history. Could it be that South Africans are, generally speaking, a nostalgic people who will not leave the past where it belongs — in the past?

"No. It has absolutely nothing to do with nostalgia. In the 1980s, when both Sarafina and Sophiatown were first created, they were written and performed under conditions of intense political pressure. As a result, they both dealt with deep issues in history," says Purkey.

"Sarafina, true, is rich in musical terms, with song and dance styles that are in fact an extension of the Gibson Kente style of theatre-making [of which Ngema is a product], while Sophiatown is rich with regard to well-researched facts about that particular period and place in history and its sociology.

"My view is that people respond to these plays in the manner they do due to the fact that they connect to the bigger story embedded in them."

Although at face value Sophiatown is about a Jewish woman who finds herself living in a diverse community whose cultures are different from hers, which results in a clash, there is a bigger story with which people can connect.

"That story is, at a deeper level, a celebration of our ability as a nation to survive tough times," he says.

"Of course, this message comes through in nuanced ways, such as the use of humour, song, dance and texts," says Purkey.

He was part of the team that workshopped Sophiatown at the Junction Avenue company in the 1980s. In the team were well-known playwrights such as the late Ramolao Makhene, and household names including William Kentridge, Arthur Molepo and Patrick Shai.

Purkey then, just as now, directed the play, which is a prescribed setwork for grade 11 pupils in Gauteng.

In a free SA, critics have often charged that writers and theatre-makers seem to be, at best, slow in responding to political developments such as governance failures and corruption and, at worst, to shy away from creating works that speak truth to power. This raises the question of whether playwrights have abdicated their role as providers of a window onto the state of society and politics, as they used to do under apartheid with plays such as Asinamali!, Woza Albert and, of course, Sarafina and Sophiatown.

Purkey, a former Wits University drama professor, former Market Theatre artistic director and currently dean at Afda (the South African School of Motion Picture and Live Performance), does not agree with this analysis.

"South African writers and theatre-makers continue to deal with the political issues of the day, especially if you look at plays such as When Swallows Cry by Mike van Graan, The Girl in the Yellow Dress By Craig Higginson, Nothing But the Truth by John Kani and Rhetorical by Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekhabi, to name but a few. These plays deal with politics in a free SA.

"However, one must admit that it is much harder now to deal with the politics of the day as we are now a different society from what it was during apartheid. We are now diverse and quite sophisticated," Purkey says.

"You have to be careful that you do not come up with a simplistic political play that says everything is just bad. The play must be analytical and deal in an intelligent way about the issues that are quite complex.

"I am sure we will soon have plays that deal with issues of decolonisation. We have already had a play that dealt with #FeesMustFall. We are living in times that are uneasily normal," says Purkey.

Sophiatown transports audiences into the colourful atmosphere of the Johannesburg suburb with its larger-than-life personalities, legendary shebeens, musical heritage and slick tsotsis.

In the 1950s, the suburb was an albatross around the neck of the apartheid government, which was eager to enforce the Group Areas Act.

Residents of integrated areas such as Sophiatown and District Six in Cape Town rebelled, and this defiance was often expressed through dance, Kofifi music and other forms of entertainment.

Sophiatown (also called Kofifi) was the birthplace of the late musician Thandi Klaasen, whose most famous hit paid tribute to her home. Writers Don Mattera, journalist and teacher Can Themba and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lived there.

The history was almost lost when black and coloured residents of Sophiatown were removed by the apartheid government between 1955 and 1959.

All these elements are neatly woven into this latest production, even though it is done by actors who were too young to have experienced such dislocation.

The Sophiatown cast includes Arthur Zitha as Fahfee, Barileng Malebye (Princess), Christine van Hees (Ruth Golden), Hlengiwe Lushaba (Madlala Mama), Joel Zuma (Charlie), Sandile Dlangalele (Mingus), Sechaba Ramphele (Jakes) and Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala (Lulu).

Sophiatown is at the Market Theatre until May 14.

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