The curtains open on a small house in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, 1954: a freehold township in apartheid South Africa. Our focus is on a family of bizarre characters (including a writer, a school girl, a gangster and a white Jewish girl) and their struggles with the reality of apartheid.
The entire performance takes place in the communal living space, walls lined with photographs taken by Ernest Cole, South Africa’s first black freelance photographer. We see Jakes (Feriha Mugisha) tapping away at his type-writer, Mamariti (Njoki Wamai) curled up in an arm chair with a glass of whisky, and, after Ruth Golden (Sophia Grant) announces that all she needs in life is ‘a light to read by and a bath’, the tub is rapidly produced.
Starting slowly and tentatively it is only when Lulu (Jess Matsebula) and Fafhee (Precious Oyelade) take to the stage that this play really gets going. Their confidence and exuberance is half of the success of this production; the other half is the fantastic music. Soulful, full of life and colour, it is the largely a cappella singing, the joyful ululation and foot-stamping as the characters become increasingly political and the heart filled moaning towards the end of the play that is the emotional force driving home difficult issues.
Unfortunately, the power of the music only highlights the parts where this play does not live up to its full potential. The often indecipherable shouting of Mingus (Alex Diene) makes it difficult to sympathise or even understand his character. More disappointing is the lack of chemistry between Mugisha and Grant. They are both characters struggling with their identity: he with speaking five different languages and wanting to write great stories for his newspaper but being relegated to the Boxing, her with her white South African nationality and her Jewish faith. However their total lack of chemistry makes the entire love-story sub-plot fall flat.
However, it is refreshing to see a production at the ADC which stood out – too often we see an all-white cast performing a Jacobean play. The fact that these performances will generate money for charities in South Africa still trying to deal with the problems that the apartheid created is a very potent gesture.
This musical has the potential to be incredible, I only hope that as the show continues the actors become more comfortable and bring the show to life as it so deserves.
Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
'Sophiatown' is playing at the ADC Theatre at 7.45 pm until Saturday 1st. Get your tickets online at http://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/drama/sophiatown.aspx
All Image Credits: Tom Porteous