On the stages at the South African State Theatre are two musicals created in the 1980’s, both works play out against the backdrops of the politics of their respective times. Sarafina is set in the 1970’s against the backdrop of the 1976 student uprisings. Sophiatown is set in the freehold suburb of Sophiatown, in 1955, the year that the National Party apartheid government forcefully ejected the residents and moved them to various locations separated by race.
Sophiatown the musical tells the story of a Jewish woman who responds to an advert placed in Drum magazine by one of its writers, Jakes Mamabolo, to move into a shebeen in Sophiatown. The story tells of the interactions between Ruth, the Jewish woman and the existing tenants in this shebeen, Jakes the writer, the elderly woman who owns the shebeen, her teenage daughter and her gangster son Mingus, his girlfriend Princess and his gopher Charlie, and Mr Fahfee named after the betting game he is obsessed with.
This play, work-shopped in the 1980’s includes many of the elements of life in the freehold suburb of Sophiatown: the gangsters, the music, the bohemians and the intermingling of the races much to the annoyance of the government at the time. The story is set in the lead up to the evictions in 1955 and ultimately ends when the characters are separated by these destructive events.
The cast is young and this has been raised as a criticism of both productions of Sophiatown on Gauteng stages at the moment. In this production the youthfulness of the cast doesn’t take anything from the story or their performance, with the characters given a liveliness that contrasts the tragic backdrop against which the story is set. It is evident from the outset that Mingus, the gangster is not a good guy, but no character is one dimensional and this is clearly portrayed in an outstanding performance by Terrence Ignacious Ngwila.
Overall this is a particularly enjoyable production of a well known story, that allows the humour in the script to shine through the characters in very natural and believable portrayals.
I highly recommend this production of Sophiatown, which is currently a set work for scholars in Grade 11 in Gauteng.
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