At the press desk, Seattle Repertory Theatre PR manager Sarah Meals was muttering under her breath, "fast and furious" as she handed out tickets. "The press usually comes in a trickle during a run," she said, "but tonight, everyone's in the house."
Last night, theater nerds from across the city congregated at Seattle Repertory Theatre for the opening night of the The Suit, a simple but chilling apartheid-era story by South African writer Can Themba, adapted and directed by the legendary Peter Brook. This was its first US performance outside New York.
For a good hour before the play started, you could see several generations of them populating the surrounding blocks—theater-makers who've become filmmakers, young actors who still have stars in their eyes, directors who remain in the game, playwrights who've given up—sucking down bowls of cheap pho in the cafes and drinking cocktails in the bars near Seattle Center. It was as if the theater equivalent of the bat signal had been shot into the sky, and the faithful came scurrying.
They had come to worship at the altar of Peter Brook, perhaps the most famous theater director alive—a few weeks ago, Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning told me that trying to estimate Brook's influence on contemporary theater is "kind of like asking what influence Sir Isaac Newton has on astrophysics today"—and to see what could be his farewell production. Tomorrow will be his 89th birthday.
So how was it?
I like an old-fashioned idol-smashing as much as anyone, but I have to admit I thought it was marvelous.
I typically try to stay away from using the first person in reviews unless it's absolutely necessary (it sounds both egomaniacal and redundant to say "I think X is Y" if you can simply say "X is Y"), but The Suit seemed to move everyone I spoke to afterwards in strongly different ways. Some were as enthusiastic as me, but others in the lobby and the post-show barroom conversations grumbled that it was dull (there aren't a lot of plot points) and even condescending (it is aggressively accessible which, in this case, I think is an asset). So, for the purposes of this post, I'm ditching my self-imposed convention*.
But, for me, The Suit is a very simple but very affecting fable that feels like a light, gentle touch while cutting as deeply and precisely as a surgeon's scalpel. Brook has compared Themba to Chekhov in his ability to make small, domestic scenes hum with the much larger forces swirling just outside the door.
The Suit is ostensibly about a young marriage, but the pressures of living in a society explicitly built on racism are always there, from the threat of gentrification (tearing down a vibrant neighborhood and relocating everyone to a township) to one character carefully washing himself each morning, "though no white man complaining about the smell of blacks knows anything about it."
As our narrator (Jordan Barbour) says in the first few seconds of the play: "The story I'm going to tell couldn't have happened anywhere except in countries like South Africa, which lived under an iron fist of oppression." Whether the story could've happened in a country like the United States is for us to decide.
The staging is very simple: a carpet, bounded by spare metal clothing racks and a few simple chairs in hot-climate colors (bold red, green, yellow, and blue) to represent the home of Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa).
The two are a young married couple living, our narrator tells us, in "a wonderland called Sophiatown. It wasn't pretty and pink, it wasn't glowing with flowers or gleaming with sunshine shining on the windows, in fact there were no windows, only sheets of cardboard with holes. But what made Sofiatown a miracle was its people, the lives that were being lived, the music that was being played, the stories that were being told!"
The story is also simple. Philemon catches his beloved Matilda cheating on him, her lover jumps out the window, and Philemon levies a perverse punishment: She is to treat her lover's suit as an honored guest in their home, feeding it, sleeping with it, and taking it on walks. Life will go on, but the specter of his betrayal—like the pain of living in a racist country—will be omnipresent.
And if she disobeys, he says smilingly, he will kill her.
The surface of their life changes only a little, but their world has irrevocably shifted. As he flatly tells us when he first hears of his wife's infidelity (in perhaps the most florid passage of the play):
But you'd never know it from the outside.
The rest of The Suit is told in sparse snippets of daily life—Themba was also a journalist and it shows—and a few songs, including our narrator slipping into unexpected, quiet, and searing rendition of "Strange Fruit" after he tells Philemon that the authorities are planning to tear down their beloved, squalid wonderland and ship everyone off to new townships.
The three actors and three musicians, who double as various neighbors, give dazzlingly lean and sinewy performances. And Kheswa, who plays Matilda and grew up in Johannesburg townships, sings with the kind of voice I'd like to listen to for the rest of my life. Every word, every gesture, is necessary and full of significance—from Philemon's balletic slip when he tries to go to the community's shared outhouse to the way Matilda dishes out dinner for her and her husband, they're all like Russian nesting dolls, hinting at little backstories of their own.
Brook, like Chekhov, is famous for exploring the possibility of scope within simplicity and using smallness to get at something transcendent. In the early 70s, he famously piled an international pack of actors into a bus, including a young Helen Mirren, to drive across the Sahara and perform for small settlements of people who did not share their language or even their cultural reference points—perhaps Brook's boldest experiment in trying to find a kind of performance that transcends its cultural context.
The Suit is, as some people complained afterwards, aggressively accessible. Think of your frumpiest, least adventurous relative, the biggest Anne Geddes fan you know—that person will love The Suit. But the play's pain and tragedy is profound, if you're willing to go there.
Brook has dedicated his career to staging major world myths: the Indian epic Mahabharata, the Persian poem Conference of the Birds, the works of Shakespeare.
The Suit seems small, but it is in the same lineage. Like any great myth, it is both frightening and friendly—it's as deep as you're willing to stare into it, but it meets you where you live.