One of my favourite characters from the Color Purple is Shug Avery, a dazzling blues singer from down South. In the 1985 film, Avery was played by actress Margaret Avery, who made the role of this woman loom larger than life. Her relationship with Celie (played by a very young Whoopi Goldberg) was possibly the best and first example I had of black radical feminism - a relationship steeped in reaffirming the other, loving them back to life and spurring them on to stand in their own light.
With the Joburg Theatre’s production of the iconic story, seasoned thespian Lerato Mvelase steps into the shoes of her many predecessors over the 14 years that the musical has been in existence, since it premiered in 2004 at the Alliance Theatre in Georgia.
Mvelase said she believes that in her life, art imitates life. And her taking on this role is no coincidence.
“I was always the type of woman who was afraid to take ownership of myself, of the fact that I am a woman, of the power within me, of my talent. I always felt I had to take the back seat. Playing Shug Avery, and with my mind set where it is, I am taking ownership of the fact that I am a woman, a powerful being. Shug Avery is allowing me to see the value of being a sexually liberated woman,which is something that is not a normal thing. But Shug Avery is going to give women out there the true experience of what liberation really means,” Mvelase said.
The production comes as though it is sent, particularly because of the gender struggles that South African women have faced and continue to face. These battles manifested themselves in the form of the #MeToo and #MenAreTrash campaigns, examples of social revolt by women who refused to sit silently - much like the character of Shug Avery.
Lerato Mvelase as Shug Avery and Didintle Khunou as Celie Harris in the Joburg Theatre's The Color Purple. Photo: Supplied (Rehearsal images)
“This production is going to help us reflect with each other as women and say, ‘How far have we come as women?’ I believe that everything happens for a reason. This production is not happening now because the rights were given now, it’s happening because it’s what women in this country need to see, to experience and use as validation for where we are,”she said.
She says the role has challenged her.
“Acting for me is a God-given talent. I know I can act. But the one beautiful thing about this production is that I’m feeling challenged. Next, is the music in this production. I thought I could sing. But the musical director (Rowan Bakker) is stretching us - me specifically. I’m reaching notes that I never thought I could reach. I’m doing it. I feel like I’m on stage for the first time,” Mvelase said.
One of her co-stars, Didintle Khunou, steps into the life of Celie Harris, a woman who has been subdued through abuse, who finds her voice in her journey through life.
Khunou, who is savouring this performance because it’s her first major musical, said the challenge with becoming Celie was that she had to face her own demons.
“I realised my personality was not too far off from Celie’s. I am by nature reserved. But what I’ve also come to realise is that Celie is not reserved by choice. She has been influenced adversely. When you see Celie in scenes where she’s with Nettie, she’s talkative and animated,” she explains.
The cast of The Color Purple at the Joburg Theatre includes Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko. Choreography is by Oscar Buthelezi, production design by Sarah Roberts, lighting design by Mannie Manim and sound design by Richard Smith.
If the critical responses to the book, film and musical are anything to go by, Joburg audiences are in for an absolute treat.
The Color Purple will be at the Joburg Theatre from January 31 to March 4. Tickets are available from Webtickets