Junction Avenue Theatre Company/Market Theatre Company

at the Royal-George Theatre


Pat Van Hemelrijck

at Victory Gardens

Sophiatown falls into the trap that awaits every political play–it becomes overtly political. Instead of the issues quietly seeping into the plot, the play turns preachy, the characters delivering impassioned speeches denouncing apartheid. Instead of feeling the injustice and the outrage, the audience ends up hearing about it. Meanwhile the conflicts brewing between the characters evaporate.

The play, developed jointly by the Junction Avenue Theatre and the Market Theatre of South Africa, is about a vibrant, freewheeling ghetto west of Johannesburg that was destroyed in 1955 to make way for a sewage-treatment plant. In Sophiatown, blacks, whites, Asians, and “colored” (people of mixed race) mingled freely, despite harsh laws designed to keep the races strictly segregated.

For reasons never fully explained, Jakes, a black writer for Sophiatown’s Drum magazine, places an ad inviting a “Jewish girl” to come live in the house he shares with his family. And for reasons never fully explained, Ruth Golden shows up one day, suitcase in hand, ready to move in.

Ruth fascinates Jakes’s brother Mingus, a petty gangster who supports the family through robbery. Mingus falls all over himself trying to make the white-skinned boarder comfortable. He procures a bathtub when she mentions that she likes to take baths, and he gives her some stolen pearls–to the annoyance of Princess, his girlfriend. Eventually he makes an aggressive sexual overture, which Ruth rebuffs, and eventually, she declares her fondness for Jakes. The problem is that by the time these complications emerge, the bulldozers are on their way, and the plot is drowned in cries of outrage about the race laws.

That’s when the play disintegrates. Sure, apartheid is awful–who’s going to disagree with that? But to denounce a system so flagrantly unjust is merely preaching to the converted.

Making the audience feel the injustice should be the goal of drama, and that’s what Sophiatown fails to achieve. The play approaches that goal, however, by presenting some interesting characters. Jakes, played with boyish exuberance by Patrick Shai, is a writer who is more comfortable looking at people than getting involved with them. Mingus, given a nice, nasty edge by Arthur Molepo, is an insecure crook struggling to achieve respect through his stolen money. And Ruth–the most implausible character in the play–is given at least a semblance of personality by Megan Kruskal.

Also contributing to the play’s zest are the wonderful songs, sung a cappella in multipart harmony by the eight cast members, who dance joyously as they sing. These musical interludes are almost enough in themselves to save the show.

Sophiatown reminded me of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson, which is also about institutionalized racial oppression. Both have been mistakenly perceived as musicals; both would benefit enormously from a few more well-placed musical numbers. Ma Rainey, however, tends to keep racism in the background, a specter haunting the characters. Racism comes crashing into Sophiatown, driving out the complexity and the dramatic tension that, in better plays, transform political awareness into a visceral experience.

Tout Suit may be considered a form of aversion therapy–guaranteed to keep people away from theater. The show asks people to shell out $18 to $20 to watch Pat Van Hemelrijck of Belgium do utterly mundane stunts with electric appliances. By pressing a key on an old piano, for example, he makes a half-dozen adding machines start to clack. Another key activates a beat-up record player, which plays a scratchy version of some piano tunes or a scene from Hamlet. And remember those machines equipped with a belt that vibrates back and forth to help people massage away their fat? Well, for laughs, Van Hemelrijck affixes to the vibrating posts rubber hoses with hands on the end. Then he puts a nose and glasses on the machine, making it look vaguely humanold. Then he turns the machine on, so the “arms” move up and down. Believe me, it sounds funnier than it is.

Tout Suit, which has already closed, was part of the Chicago International Theatre Festival, a fact that intensified its powers of aversion. People may well have asked the depressing question, “Is this really the best theater the world has to offer?”

But maybe you’re thinking Tout Suit is actually a piece of performance art that has some hidden point. Forget that. Performance art certainly can be this tedious, pointless, and inscrutable, but performance artists at least have the sense to befuddle their audiences. Van Hemelrijck is perfectly transparent. In fact, he is a remarkably inept performer. He laughs at his own jokes. When his simple stunts fail to work–which happened three times on opening night–he looks genuinely embarrassed. After trying twice to make a floor buffer dance, for example, he grinned awkwardly and went on to the next trick, with no attempt to finesse his failure.

The set around him littered with countless gadgets and doodads, Van Hemelrijck looked like a teenage boy with a particularly messy room–an impression fostered by his guileless performing style. Mind you, he doesn’t adopt the pose of being a teenager; he doesn’t adopt any pose at all. He just repeats his tiny repertoire of visual jokes over and over, and ends up by turning everything on at once, creating a terrible din. It’s not funny, it’s not clever, and it’s not interesting, but it sure is noisy, exactly what you might expect from a piece seemingly designed to drive you out of the theater.