I went to see The Suit at BAM tonight. Based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba, The Suit is the story of Matilda and Philomen– a seemingly happy couple who learn to relate to each other in an entirely different way when Philomen learns of Matilda’s infidelity. There is music, there’s dancing, there’s not much of a fourth wall, there’s audience participation (I think this is the only time I’ve seen a show and felt tempted to pop my hand in the air and beg to be included on stage), and I was reminded of the many ways that theater can work, what it can do. The stage is sparse, actors play multiple roles, characters address the audience, musicians are onstage– there was an in-between quality to this world and this story that I think theater can capture so beautifully. But there was also so much specificity, and when the narrator tells us that this story could only take place in South Africa– during its regime of violence and oppression, of fear and no safety, of hate and hope– you understand. The story feels immensely personal, but it gestures to the world outside of the couple’s bedroom– a world where musicians and working men are killed daily and neighborhoods are destroyed– and it’s hard not to see the symmetry between Philomen and Matilda’s loss and a character singing “Strange Fruit” after learning of a musician’s execution.
We all need stories like this. Stories of life and love and hope and loss and fear and doubt. I sometimes find it hard to relate to theatrical depictions of blacks– our pain and suffering feels paramount and seems to squeeze the life force out of everything. But this story gave the characters some room, they had space to be free to live in a way I often don’t see on American stages. It’s not surprising to me that the company touring the production is French. There was so much life presented tonight. I recently saw the film adaptation of Les Miserables and was amazed by how dead everyone seemed– there was no fire, no passion, no heat, no breath. The Suit had a pulse. It throbbed and showed us how life is everywhere all the time– the good parts and the difficult parts– and there is beauty to be found in our encounters with that life.