ON A table at Gramadoelas, empty beer bottles and plastic cups blink in the pale, rain-flecked afternoon light, like the detritus of a raucous drinking session the previous night. Except that the legendary restaurant in Johannesburg’s Market Theatre precinct is sadly no more — these days, it serves as a rehearsal space. And the drained quarts are just props for the 30th anniversary production of the musical Sophiatown, which opens this week at the Market Theatre to mark the venue’s 40th year.
Today, the romance of the golden Sophiatown era of the 1950s glows undimmed: millennials are fascinated by the renaissance of art, literature, jazz, mbaqanga and intellectual debate that flowered among the mixed residents of the district, which was one of Johannesburg’s last freehold residential suburbs and was cocking a snook at the freshly minted segregation laws.
Yes, Kofifi (Sophiatown) was the muse of writers and Drum magazine journalists such as Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and Todd Matshikiza.
Skokiaan-brewing shebeen queens lorded it over the locals, who dressed snappily while jiving to the music of Kippie Moeketsi, Hugh Masekela, Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers.
Seldom in SA has an era captured the popular imagination the way Sophiatown has, aside, perhaps, from District Six. There’s even a funky new multi purpose space, called Sophiatown — The Mix, that’s sprung up in Toby Street, offering live jazz concerts (“bring your own cooler box“), walking tours, exhibitions and, recently, a “story wall” installation.
Yet there was a dark and brutal side to the Sophiatown mythology: it was a nest of violent gangsters, as well as a place of extreme squalor, poverty, alcoholism and depression that led to some of its most brilliant leading lights being snuffed out before their time. And, of course, capping it all were the notorious forced removals that devastated a community and almost extinguished any hope of bucking the apartheid system.
With this in mind, any work of art that seeks to represent the era needs to offer a balanced and nuanced perspective, and not just a nostalgic ode, to be credible.
And this is perhaps why the musical play Sophiatown, which premiered in 1986, has stood the test of time.
It was revived in 1994 and 2005, and now Malcolm Purkey is directing a new production featuring a young cast brimming with promise and delivering four-part harmonies to melt the hardest heart. Purkey is a former artistic director at the Market and now dean of Afda’s Johannesburg campus, the performance and film college.
It’s been more than three decades since a group of young activists from the Junction Avenue Theatre Company began workshopping the piece. They included Purkey, Sarah Roberts (who has designed the costumes and sets for this production), Ramolou Makhene, Siphiwe Khumalo, Doreen Mazibuko and Gladys Mothlale. William Kentridge created the original scenery and the posters; Arthur Molepo, who is the musical director of the current incarnation, was also there from the get-go.
“That was an extraordinary piece,” Purkey reflects, ahead of the play’s opening. “When I look at it now, we were either foolhardy or brave.
“We were talking about [the character] Fahfee being recruited into MK, and about the M-plan or Mandela Plan.”
It was packed to the rafters from the start, and played for several seasons as well as touring internationally. “[Junction Avenue] had been making work since 1976, practising around the notion of history from below, giving expression to the social context fearlessly, revealing the hidden history and, in the words of [Athol] Fugard — quoting [Albert] Camus I believe — bearing witness to the times,” explains Purkey.
He says when he looks back at similar classics from the SA theatre canon, “those pieces had a life embedded in them that was made special by the times”.
Equally, the Sophiatown production certainly does provide a snapshot of history, and brims with humour, music, dance and a vivid recreation of “SA’s Harlem” in all its urbane charm.
Yet it’s the examination of identity that is likely to strike a topical chord.
There’s the Jewish girl who comes to live in Sophiatown digs and starts questioning her Jewish and white SA identity, and also the journalist, Jakes, who can speak a raft of indigenous tongues as well as Afrikaans, English and tsotsitaal while listening to Bach and Beethoven and reading Russian novels. He can be excused for pondering: “What the hell am I?”Purkey says personal identity is a topic that keeps rearing its head.
“My approach this time, apart from trying to make each moment work, is particularly around the idea of identity and the challenge of race relations.
“We’ve seen that even today, we can’t have a relationship until this war is fought and won, and that’s a sad state of affairs.”
He hopes the young people who come to see it — Sophiatown is a grade 11 English setwork — will appreciate its current resonances, while gaining access to “history, poetry and the titillation of relationships”.
Another work of art linked to Sophiatown is the new short film The Suit.
Jarryd Coetsee is the director and Luke Sharland his producing partner at Mandala Films. They shot their debut film mainly in buildings in the suburb that survived the demolitions — including at the Anglican Church, located, incidentally, in the street where the writer, Themba, once lived.
Coetsee has spent years adapting the film from the classic Themba story.
The National Film & Video Foundation agreed to fund the project because of the “national and literary significance” of Themba’s story. And, in another example of the goodwill that exists towards promoting history and heritage, they also managed to secure an old period bus that drove the Sophiatown route, and even got it running, thanks to the Friends of the James Hall Museum of Transport.
The Suit features two generations of the local powerhouse acting dynasty of Atandwa Kani and his Tony Award-winning father, John, whom Coetsee admits to “pursuing relentlessly because I knew they were the best men for the job”.
Young filmmaker Coetsee admits to an enduring fascination with Kofifi: “Sophiatown represents to me the triumph of the human spirit over overwhelming adversity,” he explains. “Before the forced removals, there was a burgeoning of life ... the amalgamation of different people produced a lasting legacy of goodwill that had positive transformative ripples in the long run for the entire country.”
While being inspired by the “beating heart” of the place and the era, he acknowledges its “undercurrent of profound sadness, pain and suffering, mirrored in the ramifications with which we continue to grapple in SA”.
The story of The Suit can be viewed as a metaphor for the nation’s deep-seated collective national trauma. A man catches his wife in bed with another man, who flees, leaving behind only his suit, which the husband insists on welcoming as an ever-present “guest” in their household, cruelly reminding his wife of her infidelity.
Says Coetsee: “I was attracted to the thematic relevance of the impact of oppression on personal relationships. I think we tend to approach our oppressive history from a predominantly intellectual perspective, without considering the significant emotional or psychological aspects.
“The Suit enabled me to access the dysfunction on a deeply human level, and it had a transformative effect on me, which I wanted to share widely with others.”
They are trying to get The Suit into film festivals and are also pushing for a local theatrical release in cinemas, while conceding that “short films are not ordinarily commercial ventures”. But the primary purpose is to get the featurette seen as widely as possible, hoping that it will spark empathy with the characters and personal introspection.
Because, after all, didn’t someone once say that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it?