World Stages: International Theatre Festival -‘The Suit’ at The Kennedy Center

The World Stages: International Theater Festival takes the center stage at The Kennedy Center, March 10-30, 2014 bringing together some of today’s most exciting theatrical visionaries presenting an unprecedented focus on theatre from around the globe. Twenty-two theatrical offerings from nineteen countries, and every continent except Antarctica, are represented in this theater Festival of dynamic stories examining contemporary issues and universal themes. Curated by Alicia Adams, Vice President, International Programming, thirteen fully staged productions will be featured including nine U.S. premieres, as well as four theater-focused installations, panel discussions, two staged readings, and two Directors forums.

The delights in this extraordinary assembling of theatrical treasures comprise World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014 – the Kennedy Center’s first theater- focused international festival!


       Two Wrongs, Don’t Make a Right – REVIEW: THE SUIT

 As the Kennedy Center’s World Stages International Theatre Festival’s debut production, renowned film, opera, and theatre visionary, Peter Brook, masterfully orchestrates the Paris-based Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s international ensemble production of The Suit. Performed in English, the 1950’s classic South African fable by South African writer Can Themba is based on the short story of the same name.

In the easy-going setting of The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, The Suit is a witty and seemingly simplistic morality tale about infidelity, the struggle to forgive, and the hard learned lesson that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Peter Brook. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GettyImages.
Peter Brook. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GettyImages.

The brilliance of The Suit is how Peter Brook finds the heart and the truth of this production with his innovative storytelling by trusting the audiences’ intelligence without explaining too much. Such minimalism allows the audience to actively participate, and makes for an exquisite theatre experience.

The British-born 88-year-old and two-time Tony Award Winner, (Best Director/Dramatic: in 1966 for Marat/Sade and in 1971 for William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) simplifies theater in ways that most directors strive to accomplish, but is not easily achieved.

Throughout his career, Brook has distinguished himself in various genres and his productions are notable for their iconoclastic nature and scope. He directed his first play in London in 1943, and for two decades worked as the Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position he was first appointed in 1962. In 1971, he founded with Micheline Rozan the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris and in 1974, opened its permanent base in the Bouffes du Nord Theatre. Peter Brook has gone on to direct over 70 productions in London, Paris, New York, and around the world.  His filmography includes Lord of the Flies (1963) and Marat/Sade (1967).

With a superb cast, minimal set design (three wardobe racks, a table, and scattered crayola color wooden chairs centered by three yellow chairs with a hanging suit in the middle). and an effective, moody lighting design by Philippe Vialatte, the legendary Brook, and his long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk, have directed (all three are credited) and adapted The Suit that takes place in Sophiatown, South Africa in the 1950s, and set it to music from diverse sources and musical influences.

The result is a fresh approach and lively stage adaptation that center on a middle class lawyer who forces his adulterous homemaker wife to treat her lover’s left-behind suit as an honored house guest“The home of truth, our place,” is how the show’s opening narration paints the picture of the apartheid violent environment of the poor but thriving suburb of Johannesburg at the time. It also describes the indignity and degregation the vulnerable husband and wife trade with one another.

Nonhlanhla Kheswa. Photo by Johan Persson.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa. Photo by Johan Persson.

Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) catches his wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) in bed with her lover, who flees the scene in only his underwear, leaving his suit behind. The controlled-tempered Philomen uses psychological warfare as his way to deal with the tenuous situation and execute a personalized, repressed brand of retribution. As punishment, and a constant reminder of Matilda’s adultery and illicit affair, Philomen demands forced hospitality by incorporating the suit into their daily lives. The lover’s suit is to be attended to by Matilda – feeding it, entertaining it, and taking it out for Sunday walks. Matilda tries to embrace her predicament and plays around with the suit, and even sings to it in an attempt to make the best of her situation. But pretend play can only last for so long.

Music and the gorgeous vocals of South African, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, play an integral element of this production. The music alone would be worth the theater ticket price. The multi-talented Kheswa, performed in The Lion King on Broadway for five years, was a featured vocalist with Wyclef Jean, and is the lead in her South African jazz band, Kheswa & Her Martians.

A musical highlight in The Suit is when Kheswa’s character, Matilda, sings the Tanzania love song “Maleika” (Swahili for “Angel”) to her husband and partying house guests. It is a freeing and joyous moment for Matilda, and Kheswa soothes with a effervescent tone to her voice that warms the soul. The freedom of her spirit is infectious. She is a caged bird finding her voice and spreading her wings. In the interactive and revealing climatic scene, members of the audience are brought onto the stage and take part in the festive special occasion.

Additionally, the appealing Jordan Barbour who begins as the narrator, and then performs several integral male and female roles, sings a potent rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and the other three members of this versatile ensemble are musicians that play the trumpet (Mark Kavuma), guitar (Arthur Astier), and accordion/piano (Mark Christine) and perform character cameos throughout (In the post performance discussion last night, the musicians shared a fascinating little secret – that beyond those musical set pieces, the musicians improvise the African and western classical music that they play throughout the play. Every night, they confessed to playing a different lineup of songs – affecting the rhythm and flow of the production each night.)

The Suit consists of many monologues that speak to the woes and interior life of both Philomen and Matilda. When the actors are in scenes together, the chemistry between the two is superb and the performances are energetic and heartfelt. Ivanno Jeremiah accomplishes the demanding duality of creating a nuanced, empathetic character, who is also frightening. Despite the pretense of moving forward since the discovery of the affair, the constant presence of the suit casts a lingering sadness and inescapable dark cloud over Philomen and Matilda’s life.

The power of forgiveness is a life lesson that we all can learn. It’s also a lesson that is particularly relevant to South Africa today, a country still distressed by the ghosts of apartheid. It is not enough to merely say we forgive others. Our actions must be the same. By doing so, we not only bless others, but ourselves too.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Hating those who hurt you is like hoping they will die – its poison for the soul.

Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa. Photo by Johan Persson.
Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa. Photo by Johan Persson.

I believe this hauntingly beautiful production will touch viewers in some way, and it may even move one to tears. The audience had a place and an authentic experience you don’t want to miss. Particular and specific on stage, we see in The Suit, the universality of this South African story.

In English. Recommended for mature audiences.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Suit  plays March 12-13, 2014 at 7:30 pm in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

The closest metro station is Foggy Bottom/George Washington University. There is a FREE Kennedy Center Shuttle that departs from the metro station every 15 minutes from 9:45 a.m.-Midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-Midnight Saturdays, and noon-Midnight Sundays.


Read Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ other reviews here of shows in the World Stages: International Theater Festival:

The Suit.
Tapioca Inn: Incendios.
Death & the Maiden (La Muerte y La Doncella).
Savannah Bay.

World Stages Festival YouTube channel

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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