THE SUIT by Brook,       , After - Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, Adaptation, Direction and Music - Peter Brook, Marie Helene Estienne and Frak Krawczyk, Lighting - Philippe Vialatte, Potographed in Paris for the Young Vic Theatre, 2012, Credit: Johan Persson (39791)

“There was an attempt to destroy it, but it didn’t succeed, because we are performing his stories now,” the distinguished international actor William Nadylam conveyed. His conversation centers around the South African writer Canodoise Daniel “Can” Themba and his short story “The Suit,” which has been adapted into a play running Jan. 17 through Feb. 2 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Nadylam portrays Philemon, the male lead, in this staging by Peter Brook.

Themba, a journalist and short story writer, was one of the famous “Drum Boys” who wrote for the groundbreaking Drum magazine in the vibrant, culturally rich, multiracial community of Sophiatown, Johannesburg. The other members included journalists Lewis Nkosi, Nat Nakasa, Bloke Modisane and Es’kia Mphahlele.

“Themba was an intellectual,” says Nadylam, who was born in Paris to a father from Cameroon and a mother from Reunion, the French island in the Indian Ocean. “The thing that was really touching for me is that [in the play] we were talking about the pre-existing intellectual life in South Africa before apartheid. Because we have been shocked by apartheid, we tend to forget that before that, there was something already standing.”

Nadylam points out: “The aim of apartheid was to destroy not only the people, but what they built intellectually–to destroy and minimize their existence. And they were not just writers–there were doctors, lawyers, actors. They were Black people.”

For this staging of “The Suit,” the direction, music and adaptation are jointly credited to Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk. A 1990 staging was created by the South Africans Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon.

The story concerns a man, Philemon, who is married to Mathilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa). Nadylam conjectures that the characters are living lives similar to what Themba experienced at the time he wrote the short story. “We are talking about a man who is a writer, but mainly he is a journalist for a newspaper. He was trained as a teacher, but ends up a writer/journalist,” Nadylam says.

Nadylam went on to explain that being a journalist/writer during the time of apartheid in South Africa was unlike being one in Paris, London or New York. “If you are a writer and do your job, you faced the difficulty of being an African man in a racist society, so before you finish doing your job, you are confronted with the difficulty [that] anything you do will be controlled.” Themba had to run away after being viewed as “an enemy of the government,” Nadylam says, and he died a year after going into exile.

“The thing about Themba is that throughout all his troubles, he still had the strength to smile and the strength to be happy. So this is a story that is a tragic one, but you laugh from beginning to end, and that’s something typical to Africa, or maybe to Black people. You laugh from the beginning to the end. The capacity of putting laughter in the middle of a tragedy … so the way I’m going to say it, it sounds really sad and tragic, but in fact it really does come across as a tragedy when you watch it.”

The story of Philemon and Matilda evolves one morning after he finds out that his wife is cheating on him, something that is known throughout their community. He returns home to find his wife with her lover (Rikki Henry), who escapes by jumping out a window, leaving his suit behind. “Philemon cannot ignore the suit. It’s there. It’s evidence,” Nadylam points out, adding: “Philemon has a strange reaction. Instead of becoming physical or getting angry in a major way, he invents a bizarre and cruel punishment for his wife. He is going to have her live with the suit. They are going to have a three-way relationship with the suit. They are going to eat, sleep, walk and stroll around with the suit. The humiliation of this menage a trois is going to destroy the marriage.”

In preparing for the play, Nadylam, whose previous characters included roles that portrayed “nice people,” heroes and romantic affairs, admitted: “It was tough. This man comes across as someone tortured who suffers at first. He has done everything for this woman. He loves her and she has stopped loving him and he doesn’t understand. That will turn him into some type of monster, one that he eventually destroys. When he forgives, it’s a bit too late. There is no redemption.”

Nadylam had to consider another layer that colors the plot. “There is also the specter of domestic violence that hovers about the couple, and we are talking about a situation that is taking place in South Africa in the 1950s, where women were not that emancipated yet, although societies in Africa are matriarchal.” Consequently, Nadylam wanted to be very careful in portraying the role of Philemon. “When it comes to violence, you don’t want to be that man,” he remarked, adding: “There is no redemption.”

Accordingly, Nadylam had to work very hard with Brook. “I had to accept the ugliness of the character, to not try to make him win hearts. I had to rethink the way to project myself, to do what it is to be an African man in the ’50s in South Africa, where everybody in the community knows when someone is having an affair and the shame it brings upon the family. At that time, you just couldn’t get out of situations like that,” he said.

“The Suit,” which opened in Naples, Italy, before returning to Brook’s Thetre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, with subsequent tours to Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, has a cast of four actors and three musicians. In addition to Nadylam and Kheswa are assistant director, Rikki Henry, who plays the lover, Jared McNeill, Arthur Astier, Raphael Chambouvet and David Dupuis.

In addition to the play’s African music, there is also classical, jazz and other types of American songs of the 1950s and ’60s, leading Nadylam to conclude, “‘The Suit’ has more to do with the color of emotions than the color of the skin.”

For tickets and information, call BAM at 718-636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.