Sophiatown lives on the minds of many who haunted this spot during the apartheid era.
It was a place teeming with musicians, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs and bohemians. It was also a place where people of
different colour united as one.
About 30 years ago, the musical Sophiatown transported people back to this exuberant era. Staged by the Junction Avenue Theatre
Company, who had Malcolm Purkey, among other icons, grace its posters back then.
In a way, Purkey has come full circle with this particular production, which he now helms as the director.
In retracing his formative steps with the production, he says, “I was part of a theatre company, Junction Avenue Theatre Company, dedicated to creating original South African plays and, in 1985, we started research on a play about the 1950s. We were concerned with what we called the ‘hidden history’; that history that the apartheid state wanted hidden.
“The big event of the 1950s was the destruction of Sophiatown and the creation of a suburb for white working-class Afrikaners called Triomf.
“We knew we wanted to deal with this period and this event but only found a way into the story when we discovered a Drum magazine article about two black journalists, Nat Nakasa and Lewis Nkosi, where they invited a Jewish girl to come and live with them – it was a very strange story indeed. And so we set to work creating a new play based on this incident. I was the director of the workshop that created the play and the first writer.
“After six months of research, work, playfulness and interviews with such luminaries as Don Mattera, we had our world premiere at The Market Theatre in February 1986.”
In trying to recreate the magic once again, he reveals, “I have directed Sophiatown in many seasons all over the world and I have come to know the characters extremely well, which makes casting relatively easier for each subsequent performance.
“This is the 30th anniversary celebratory production. Nevertheless, with the help of Gina Shmukler, my associated director, and Arthur Molepo, the musical director, we conducted extensive auditions to find what I believe is a fabulous cast, worthy of their Naledi nomination for Best Ensemble.”
Sophiatown tells the story of a Jewish girl who finds accommodation at the tiny home of shebeen queen Mamariti. As the narrative unfolds, everyone is forced to confront their different realities under the apartheid regime, which also steers the future.
On his vision for the production, he reveals, “One of my principles as a director is to create the clearest storytelling I can. I work very hard on the shape of the language and the way meaning is made, paying a lot of attention to helping actors find their truth in relation to the text. I try not to impose from the outside.
“In this current production, I worked hard to create a filmic aspect, trying to minimise the blackouts and make maximum flow from scene to scene. Sophiatown is a Grade 11 national set work and I wanted the production to be completely available for a young audience.”
Shedding light on the costumes and set design, he offers, “Sarah Roberts is probably one of the most brilliant South African designers and she was involved in the original workshops, and worked on the costumes and shared a billing with William Kentridge for the designs. Now, 30 years later, she has created a new spatial design with a purified set of backdrops that pay homage to the original production. She is always committed to historical accuracy and has a great eye for colour and detail.”
Explaining the appeal of this production, 30 years later, he says, “Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, created a marvellous play called The Island in the early 70s. In that play, the characters are preparing a production of Antigone on Robben Island. The character played by John admonishes his cell mate, Winston: ‘You must hit them with laughter at the beginning and hit them with your message at the end.’ I have always found this idea very powerful and I am amazed at how much humour we managed to generate in a play that is actually about great pain and destruction.
“The audiences can have a fabulous time in the theatre, enjoying the beautiful a cappella music and the movement and the dance, but very importantly enjoy a new political insight from our current perspective.”
With a distinguished career as a drama teacher at Wits as well as former Artistic Director of the Market Theatre, he is now the Dean of AFDA in Johannesburg.
As for what’s next, he says, “I am always a little cautious about talking about projects that are in early development but I am hoping for a partnership with Towson University in Baltimore.
● Sophiatown is running at The Market Theatre’s John Kani until May 14. Bookings can be made made via www.webtickets.co.za. Group bookings can be made by Anthony Ezeoke at 011 832 1641 or 083 246 4950.