Salute to sisterhood and survival

Didintle Khunou (front) as Celie with Sebe Leotlela as Nettie in Janice Honeyman’s excellent production of The Color Purple. All pictures by @enroCpics

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Stage: The Color Purple – Joburg Theatre, Johannesburg
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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MAKE a note of the name Didintle Khunou. You are sure to be hearing a lot more of it on the strength of the powerhouse performance this 25-year-old, relative newcomer gives in the lead role of the stage musical that everyone  in South African theatre circles is talking about.

The show, of course, is The Color Purple, which, as a movie, received 11 Academy Award nominations. Surprisingly, however, that 1985 Steven Spielberg film, inspired by the celebrated, darker, 1982 novel by Alice Walker, took not a single Oscar.

The drama, telling of the hardships and growth of Celie, a poor, abused woman in Georgia, America, between 1909 and 1949, first reached Broadway as a musical in 2005, ran there for three years, and scooped 11 Tony Award nominations in 2006, winning one for LaChanze as best actress.

A well-received revival opened on Broadway in 2015 and ran until 2017, winning two 2016 Tony Awards – for Best Revival of a Musical and for Cynthia Erivo in the role of Celie. The production also took a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album in 2017.

The new, all-South African production, marking the first staging of this celebrated work in Africa, opened at the Joburg Theatre on January 31 and ends its season on March 4, with plans for an international tour in 2019.

I drove up with friends to see it and it proved a trip worth the journey and every cent, as this is a truly superb production, with an exceptionally strong cast and a set cleverly and beautifully designed by Sarah Roberts.

Her design catches the eye as one arrives in the theatre to the recorded sound of chirping birds. The huge stage is made to look even bigger with wooden pannelling everywhere – even extending over the orchestra pit and to the stage sides.

Didintle Khunou… a name to watch. She excels as Celie in The Color Purple.

Deceptively simple housing structures and two towering trees – created out of lengths of wood nailed, higgledy-piggledy, railway track-like, to metal structures – dominate the set, where Roberts immediately conjures a sense of poverty and the rural.

Director Janice Honeyman and her team first auditioned for the 20 roles for this musical as far back as 2016, and kudos to them for assembling a stellar ensemble and dynamic leads for a production that should long be remembered by all who see it.

It’s not for nothing that the musical received a long and hearty standing ovation on Saturday, when I saw it. It tells a riveting, moving and powerful story of suffering, sisterhood, strength and survival, with small-framed but powerful-voiced Khunou the brightest gem in a glittering crown of sparkling performances.

She totally embodies Celie (the character immortalised on screen by a young Whoopi Goldberg), whom we first see when she is heavily pregnant with her second child borne from rape by her father.

Celie is first seen playing with her youngest sister, Nettie (Sebe Leotlela, also a standout). She is the only person Celie truly loves after her infant children are torn from her arms by her abusive father, and sent away.

Life gets even harder when Celie is given by her father to the abusive widower Albert “Mister’ Johnson (Aubrey Poo on fine form), a tobacco farmer with many children, who is quick with verbal and physical abuse, treating Celie like a slave.

It is after losing touch with Nettie and crossing paths with two strong women – the glamorous and friendly singer Shug Avery (a wonderful Lerato Mvelase), and the large, outspoken and take-no-nonsense Sofia (a feisty and often amusing Neo Motaung), wife of ‘Mister’s rather timid son, Harpo (Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri) – that Celie slowly starts to see light at the end of the tunnel, and a way out of her living hell.

The Color Purple, featuring a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Ailee Willis, is not one of those musicals laden with singalong tunes. Instead it has music that is rousing, uplifting, stirs the soul and ignites emotion with its mesh of jazz, gospel and ragtime.

It is a tough and challenging score sprinkled with magic by the deft musical direction of Rowan Bakker, who both conducts the excellent live orchestra and performs on keyboards.

A sassy Lerato Mvelase as Shug Avery in The Color Purple.

Honeyman has created brilliant work with The Color Purple, milking excellent performances from every performer in a cast that includes a delicious trio of women who pass comments and spread gossip. Among them is Durban’s expressive Lelo Ramasimong, who has some standout vocal moments and is the understudy for the role of Shug Avery.

The musical, executive produced by Bernard Jay, features spirited choreography by Oscar Buthelezi, lighting design by Mannie Manim, and sound design by Richard Smith.

I can only echo the words of Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced the original Broadway production and made her big-screen debut, receiving an Oscar nomination, in the role of Sofia in Spielberg’s film.

Oprah writes in programme notes for The Color Purple: “There is no better time for this story to be told in South Africa, and I invite you to experience the musical with the hope that The Color Purple will bring as much joy to your life as it has brought to mine”.

 The Color Purple, for all its dark subject matter, is not all gloom and doom. It is a tale of hope, a testament to the healing power of love and a dynamic celebration of love, that will have you on your feet and wiping away a tear or two by the time you reach the final bows. It is a must-see!

Tickets for the show range in price from R250 to R400 and booking is at Computicket outlets.

NOTE: See video footage of the South African stars discussing the show by clicking here


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