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Theater Review: “The Suit” at the Kennedy Center

A heartbreakingly beautiful play set in 1950s South Africa is part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival.

Nonhlanhla Kheswain in The Suit. Photograph by Johan Persson.

Peter Brook can do more in 75 minutes than many directors can in a lifetime, evoking the extraordinary complexity of human existence—bitter and sweet—in a way that makes you forever after think about the world a bit differently. The Suit, currently playing at the Kennedy Center for two more nights as part of the World Stages festival of international theater, offers an opportunity to see what theatrical mastery can be conjured from three actors, three musicians, and a handful of rainbow-colored chairs.

The Suit comes from a short story by Can Themba (later adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon), staged by Brook’s Paris company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, with his longtime partner, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah), a middle-class secretary, lives with his wife, Tilly (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in Sophiatown, a vibrant black suburb of Johannesburg during the apartheid of the 1950s. One day, tipped off by a friend (who doubles as a narrator of sorts, played by Jordan Barbour) that his wife is being unfaithful, Philomen dashes home and finds a suit abandoned by her lover. Tilly’s punishment is that she must treat this suit as a cherished guest in her home: feed it, offer it a bed, and even take it for walks outside, to her abject humiliation.

Jeremiah’s Philomen is handsome, vital, and immensely loving until he learns of his wife’s infidelity; he describes the revelation as not so much a crushing blow as an “intricate breakdown” that forces the machinery of his life into disarray. Portraying his shift into cruelty, this production obliges the audience to consider the mistakes and errors in judgment all humans make, sometimes out of unhappiness (Tilly is a frustrated singer) and sometimes for no reason at all.

Part of The Suit’s brilliance is that there are no obvious heroes or villains: Philomen is flawless until Tilly’s misdeeds give him permission to change the rules, like a South African Walter White relishing the opportunity to break bad. Jeremiah’s broad smile and easy physicality belie a streak of menace; if Tilly refuses to indulge his suit charade, he tells her, “I will kill you.” And Kheswa’s wistful charm and unexpressed sadness make it impossible to condemn her. It helps that the songs she sings, from a cover of Nina Simone’s “I’m Feeling Good” to two African folk songs, are so beautiful, rendering the poignancy of a culture forever undermined by servitude.

That the play takes place under the cloud of apartheid is felt most strongly when Barbour sings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” after telling Philomen that Sophiatown is to be razed and its inhabitants moved to inferior dwellings 20 miles outside of the city. Amid the chairs onstage, which the characters move to transform the setting from a bedroom to a bus stop to a house, the three-piece band (guitarist Arthur Astier, pianist/harmonica player Mark Christine, and trumpeter Mark Kavuma) offer a sense of a unique community on the precipice of destruction. That the suit itself—an object of consternation, pain, and, at one point, affection—resembles something lifeless and abandoned is no accident. Only Brook could draw such sadness, elation, and empathy from a simple folk tale barely an hour long.

The Suit is at the Kennedy Center through March 13. Tickets ($49) and more information about the World Stages festival are available at the Kennedy Center’s website.