Q&A with James Ngcobo, director of internationally-acclaimed The Suitcase

Hailing from Johannesburg, poignant and timely play The Suitcase is forging international links between the North of England and South Africa.

A unique partnership with the Market Theatre Johannesburg is bringing international theatre to venues across the North, and Hull is its first UK stop.

Writer Es’kia Mphahlele’s story is as relevant now as it was in the 1950s, and James Ngcobo’s artistic vision has brought the short story to the stage.

Exploring issues of identity, migration, exile and celebration of the human spirit, the play follows the journey of a young newly-married couple as they try to start a new life in the city of Durban. Facing unemployment and alienation in the city, Timi is driven to steal a suitcase, an act that brings terrifying consequences.

Like Hull, Market Theatre Johannesburg has a history of supporting freedom. The theatre challenged the apartheid regime and dared to stand up against social injustice, acting as a vital and powerful voice for freedom and emancipation. The theatre’s artistic director James Ngcobo explains how this driving force has brought The Suitcase to life.

The Market Theatre has been hugely influential over the years, telling incredible
human stories that have reacted to and reflected various times in South African history,
most notably the human struggles during the Apartheid era. What drew you to adapt
The Suitcase for the stage and why is it an important story to tell?

From the second I finished reading The Suitcase I knew immediately that there was a need to adapt this short story and turn it into a theatrical piece.

I was moved by its universality; it’s a piece about a man who is desperate to change his life and his fortunes so he can provide for his beloved wife.

The one thing that moved me about The Suitcase is that it is set during a time of anarchy in South Africa and yet it is initially a love story about a couple who are navigating the troubled times. In the foreground it’s their love story, which is the bigger pivot of this piece.

The production has a beautiful simplicity, full of laughter, joy, pain and heartbreak and
includes some beautiful music by Grammy Award-winning Hugh Masekela – what was it
about Hugh’s approach to music that drew you to work with him and how does the music
enhance the story?

Hugh Masekela has been an absolute gift for me; he has been my mentor. Hugh has a love for theatre, he is very passionate about storytelling and about heritage so it was easy for me, once I had composed the songs for the piece. I brought him in to give the songs a period sound that emanates from where the story is set. It was when this play was chosen to open the Soweto Theatre, to be the very first play in that space, that I reworked the songs with him. The music is there to enhance the story and to take the narrative further.

You will be premiering The Suitcase as part of Hull Truck Theatre’s UK City of Culture
programme for Hull 2017 before going out on tour – how did the friendship between the
two theatres come about and how do you see it developing in the future?

This tour is happening this year all because of the buckets of passion that Mark Babych (Artistic Director at Hull Truck Theatre) has brought to the idea of a piece from South Africa coming to Hull on such a landmark year for the city.

We are looking forward to bringing the story by the prolific Professor Es’kia Mphahlele to Hull and the Northern tour after that. This visit is the gateway to the beginning of a relationship with Hull Truck Theatre, a relationship that will carry on past this tour.

Theatres around the world have always enjoyed collaborating with other theatres that share the same passions, the same DNA, and that is the fact between Hull Truck Theatre and the Market Theatre. These are theatres that are driven by the idea of exciting and surprising their patrons.

Are you looking forward to bringing The Suitcase to the UK?

We are so excited that we are about to visit the UK with a story set in South Africa, yet anyone can relate to this universal tale of a man who wants to change his life. A man walking with a dream and how the obsession with this dream changes his life. Whenever we perform this piece, people have always said that they are clear parallels with their own lives when they witness how Timi’s life unfolds.

The show will have its UK premiere at Hull Truck Theatre (31 August–9 September) as part of our Freedom season before touring to Newcastle (14-16 September), Derby (20-23 September), Lancaster (27-29 September) and Liverpool (4-8 October).