Review: ‘The Suit,’ morality in a time of oppression

 Nonhlanhla Kheswa and the suit, in 'The Suit' at Prince Music Theater

Nonhlanhla Kheswa and the suit, in 'The Suit' at Prince Music Theater

Bittersweet and solidly theatrical, British director Peter Brook’s “The Suit” is the first major stagework at the newly revived Prince Music Theater.

It’s a simple story told in 75 minutes, from the not-so-distant time of apartheid in South Africa, when the nation’s blacks were constantly under an iron thumb of oppression written into law.

Apartheid is, in a sense the setting, but “The Suit,” is really a morality play about adultery and also the power of both forgiving and withholding forgiveness.

Brook took the current version from a play that was adapted from a story by the late Can Themba, a banned South African writer. First, Brook – who’ll be 89 in a few weeks and is an author, filmmaker, opera and theater director and major thinker about theater – adapted the stage version in French. This time around “The Suit,” an English-language production of Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord here from New York and headed to Washington’s Kennedy Center, is a story with music by Frank Krawczyk and co-created with Brook’s close collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne.

The incidental music is lovely and sets a melancholy mood with an underlying tension – just right for this story of a man (the expressive Ivanno Jeremiah) who punishes his wife (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) for her infidelity by making a symbol of the suit her fleeing lover left behind. The husband narrates the story to us but also interacts with his friend (Jordan Barbour, as many characters) and sometimes, in full scenes. “The Suit” is down-to-earth storytelling with a tone much like the popular common-sense narratives of “The Number Ladies’ Detective Agency,” Alexander McCall Smith’s series of books set in another African country, Botswana.

The three actors are excellent, breaking into songs as diverse as “Feeling Good,” by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (delivered almost as a counterpoint to the plot by the sweet-voiced Kheswa) and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” the iconic song about lynching that Billie Holiday sang when she wasn’t banned from doing so (here, sung in an appropriate haunting manner by Barbour).

Much as the songs stylishly fill out the story of “The Suit,” they seemed to me to be additions that didn’t always gel with the plot – “Strange Fruit,” apparently included to show that racism is evil wherever it happens, comes close to being a provocation, and I’m ambivalent about whether that’s a plus or a minus for a story that speaks well for itself.

The production also incorporates jazz, classical references and South African township music, all masterfully accompanied on piano, guitar, trumpet and accordion by Arthur Astier, Mark Christine and Mark Kavuma, who sometimes play townsfolk while playing instruments. The stage is littered with movable clothes racks and frame-chairs of several colors, an ambiance of bracing simplicity that matches the production itself.“The Suit,” produced by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, runs through March 8 at Princve Music Theater, Chestnut Street between Board and 15th Streets. 215-893-1999 or www.princemusictheater.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.