The Color Purple finally premiered in South Africa on Sunday and what an affair it was. The theatrical version of this critically acclaimed novel took almost 15 years to get here, but it was worth the wait.
The first thing I noted about the production was its set design. It’s simple, and features wooden fixtures that are moved around by the cast and, in some cases, by the stage hands, to create the most functional set-up. It’s minimalist, too, in the sense that not too many props are used, which is great because the musical itself is a lot to focus on.
Then there is the dialect.The story is set in Georgia in 1909 and 1949, so it’s expected that the production be wholly Americanised. Dialect coach Gina Schmukler must be given props - I could follow the dialogue without being distracted by the accent.
The company and musicians come together in a solid way to tell the story beautifully.
Didintle Khunou is spectacular as Celie. There is an innocence and honesty to her performance that forces you to fall in love with the gentle, spirited warrior all over again. Her vocals are also on par. I doubt there was a single dry eye in the theatre when she performed the numbers Somebody Gonna Love You and The Color Purple (reprise), but it was her tackling of I’m Here that was deeply moving.
Lerato Mvelase as Shug Avery hits the spot. Mvelase’s acting cannot be faulted. What’s important to the character of Shug is her free-spiritedness and her vocals. She gets both aspects right, but also brings a new intensity to the role.
The Blues come to life, especially in her fired-up performance with the company of Push da Buttons. Here, as well as in the rendition of the African Homeland, do we get a chance to fully appreciate the choreography of Oscar Buthelezi. The two musical numbers are vastly different, but the dance moves are crafted to suit each occasion.
Neo Motaung and Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri had the audience enraptured with their performances of Sofia and Harpo respectively. Motaung tackles Sofia’s powerful and raw energy so naturally that it does not seem forced at all. And Mahaka-Phiri seems to have got the internal conflicts of Harpo’s character down and he plays them out with a balance that fits into the story as it should. The pair dazzle together in their electrifying performance of Any Little Thing.
Also worth mentioning are Lelo Ramasimong, Dolly Louw and Ayanda Sibisi in their portrayals of Darlene, Doris and Jarene, the women who provide commentary throughout the musical. They were funny and entertaining, with powerful vocals to match.
A testament to Janice Honeyman’s prowess as a director is the ability to balance the storyline of The Color Purple - which is about the empowerment of a black woman and her journey into coming into her own - and the lively music of the production. If one aspect overpowered the other, the musical would not work.
The company are fully invested in giving their best performance, and it shows. There couldn’t have been a better time for the show to make its premiere in the country, especially with the social ills facing women, and, to a large extent, women of colour.
The topic of the production is sure to leave you with food for thought - in between all the head-bobbing, foot-tapping and seat-boogying you’ll be doing.
The Color Purple is an absolute pleasure to experience.
* The Color Purple runs at the Joburg Theatre until March 4.