City struggles:  Masasa Mbangeni (back), Siyabonga Twala (left) and John Lata turn in fine performances in the cathartic play The Suitcase, based on the short stories of Es’kia Mphahlele. Picture: IRIS DAWN
City struggles: Masasa Mbangeni (back), Siyabonga Twala (left) and John Lata turn in fine performances in the cathartic play The Suitcase, based on the short stories of Es’kia Mphahlele. Picture: IRIS DAWN

Anyone who appreciates good theatre should see The Suitcase, a play based on short stories written in 1954 by the late Es’kia Mphahlele, adapted and directed by James Ngcobo, the artistic director of the Market Theatre.

The production is now in Johannesburg after a sold-out five-week tour of the UK, where former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and his wife were in one of the audiences.

It is a gripping, multilayered piece of theatre that touches on various themes, including the hot subject of migration and how people have high hopes for the places to which they migrate, but in most cases these hopes are dashed.

It is also a simple love story involving two people from the countryside who find themselves attracted to the big city where they believe they will enjoy their love without interference from their families, who are opposed to the relationship because the man is Zulu and the woman Xhosa.

However, the challenges of big-city life — including unemployment and the culture shock of urban values — are difficult for the lovers to navigate. Something has to give.

Another theme that emerges in a subtle manner is the tale of how good people sometimes lose their moral compass, not necessarily because they have become bad people but because they are forced to do so through desperation.

Siyabonga Twala’s character is pushed into an act of desperation and steals a bag left by a woman on a train. He thinks he will find valuables in the bag that will alleviate the precarious circumstances of his family at home. But unbeknown to him, the bag contains the body of a baby that has recently been aborted.

Good man that he is, he cannot face his shame and decides to commit suicide. This raises several questions, one of which is the uncomfortable one of whether, under certain circumstances, it is acceptable to break rules or laws to survive certain death.

The play is a gripping piece of theatre that in many ways demonstrates Mphahlele’s firm handle on the economic, political and social issues of the day. Even though it deals with issues affecting an African family from the rural areas, the story is universal.

Emotional journey

It has been smartly directed, capturing all the nuances of a family grappling with the challenges of migration and seeing their hopes of a good life in the big city shattered.

This makes the story easy to follow and audiences are taken on a roller-coaster of emotions and are forced to share the family’s plight.

Mphahlele was a master storyteller, and this is reflected in the accolades showered on him during his life.

He brought his own experiences in and outside of SA to bear on his short stories, fiction, autobiography and history, and in so doing developed the concept of African humanism.

He skilfully evoked the black experience under apartheid in Down Second Avenue (1959), which recounted his struggle to get an education and the setbacks he experienced after he started his teaching career. He wrote two autobiographies, more than 30 short stories, two plays and many poems.

In 1969, Mphahlele was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and in 1984, he was awarded the Order of the Palm by the French government for his contribution to French language and culture.

He was the recipient of the 1998 World Economic Forum Crystal Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts and Education. In 1998, former president Nelson Mandela awarded Mphahlele the Order of the Southern Cross, one of the highest recognitions by the government (equivalent today to the Order of Mapungubwe).

This production features an all-star cast of Masasa Mbangeni, Twala, Desmond Dube and Nokukhanya Dlamini, who all acquit themselves so well on stage.

Every element of the play falls neatly together, and when all the layers are revealed, it does not feel as though one is watching several stories that have been put together.

The resulting narrative is woven together so neatly that at the end one is left with the idea that you have been watching one story.

The acting is believable, the cultural nuances are well captured and the themes are wide in their ambit.

The Suitcase is an interesting story beautifully told. Suitable for the whole family, it is difficult to imagine that an audience would leave the theatre unsatisfied.

My eyes and ears were glued to the stage for one-and-half hours and it was well worth my attention and time.

The Suitcase is at the Market Theatre until November 26.

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