In a luminous production from France’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, now at American Conservatory Theater, the tale of betrayal and punishment, set in the soon-to-be-bulldozed township of Sophiatown in South Africa in the 1950s, is heartbreaking. But it’s also funny and sweet.
When a loving husband (played by Ugandan-born Brit Ivanno Jeremiah) discovers his wife (Nonhlanhla Kheswa, who is herself from the townships of Johannesburg) in bed with a lover, he forces her to treat the escaping lover’s left-behind suit as a real person — forever, both in private and in public.
“I have no choice!” he insists to a disapproving friend (New York actor Jordan Barbour). Just as the cuckolded husband embarrasses and oppresses his young wife, so too is he himself humiliated and oppressed daily — as is everyone in the township – by the brutal apartheid regime.
The late South African writer Can Themba’s 1963 story of the same name was adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Market Theatre of Johannesburg’s Barney Simon (who premiered it in 1994).
But it owes its aesthetics to legendary British theater auteur Peter Brook along with Marie-Helene Estienne and music director Franck Krawczyk, who first adapted it for a 1999 French production. The current revival, with the text returned to English, is on tour.
Partially narrated by the appealingly low-key Barbour (who smoothly plays multiple roles as well), it includes additional narration by the characters themselves as the story unfolds. It is accompanied throughout by a musical trio (trumpet, guitar and piano) who also occasionally take on small roles, to comic effect.
The way Brook and collaborators present the story — so elegantly interweaving the merry-making of a close-knit community with the menacing shadow of apartheid — is surprisingly, and gratifyingly, simple.
The performances are crystalline. The set (by Oria Puppo) is an adaptable arrangement of colorful wooden chairs and metal frames. The songs (from “Feeling Good” to a few African melodies) are sung with unembellished, clear-eyed soulfulness by Kheswa (in addition, there’s Barbour’s exquisite rendition of “Strange Fruit”). Even Puppo’s costumes are all clean lines and no frills.
Only an unnecessary audience-participation scene breaks the magical spell.
Such a deceptively light-handed presentation makes the story all the more resonant.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 18
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org