The Color Purple – a Musical of our Time

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Africa Scene ensemble

Pictures: enroCpics (Corné Du Plessis)

The Color Purple; The Musical opens at the Joburg Theatre this week. Director Janice Honeyman and three of the soloists speak to DIANE DE BEER about the challenges of both the singing and storytelling in what has become an iconic production which many have attempted to stage locally – but this is the first time and arguably, the right time:


“Begeisterd” is what Janice Honeyman felt when she first saw The Color Purple.

Based on the classic cult novel by Alice Walker, she feels strongly that it speaks accurately about the black experience and reflects the influences so evocatively with the build-up and then final release of Celie. The young African American girl is the focus of this provocative story which deals with hardship and anguish yet finally joy, with abuse focussed on in the harshest light. It couldn’t reflect our times more aptly.

But, notes the experienced director, as a production, the storytelling leaves no room for manoeuvre. And that is what she loves best. The story is what propels the musical forward and that’s what she is intent on honouring in this production which has finally made it to local shores.

It’s about the top dog, people in power, feeling entitled to abuse those without voice. It’s a huge story that goes beyond gender and race and it’s a story of our time – as it has been through the ages. “It’s a story of the heart that has nothing to do with separatism,” she concludes as she gives a thumbs up to her talented cast – which she always is so good at putting up and then pulling together.

For all three the soloists, the joy and the challenges of this show go hand in hand.

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Shug Avery (left) and Celie (right)

In the pain of the story of The Color Purple, there’s joy, says Lerato Mvelase who plays Avery Shug, the jazz singer, who becomes Celie’s (Didintle Khunou) friend and support.

When retelling this story of violence and abuse written in 1982 and filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1985, it shines a light on the  friendship and support of the women that drive the story strongly. Could it be staged at a better time? It’s now when women all over the world are reaching out to one another to break cycles of abuse that seemed never-ending looking back.

Bringing it closer to home, our high incidence of violence and abuse against women, this coming together of the women in The Color Purple tells a story many can relate to.

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Lerato Mvelase as Shug Avery (centre) with ensemble

But, says Mvelase, who we last saw as Petal in the glorious King Kong, it’s the music that has her excited and energised. “I thought I knew it all,” she explains. “I am personally challenged not only by the people in the room, the magnificent voices, but also by the music. I am singing notes I thought were impossible,” she says about her newly-discovered range.

“It’s humbling to work on your craft in a story that is still of this time.”

“It will help us all to heal, reflect and take something away to think about,” she adds. She thinks there are many things confronted in this story that we turn away from. “It’s an extremely emotional show that underlines that no matter what we go through, there’s always laughter.”

Questions arise from the show including those so part of the zeitgeist. “What has been done to our women? But also, what have men endured to become who they are,” she continues.

Her character, Shug Avery, is the one who best embodies these dilemmas. “She has been rejected by her own people but through her liberation, the other women are given the key. They don’t know how,” says Mvelase, “but once Shug has their attention, men and women start relating to one another.”

Attention is what the auditions brought a young Didintle Khunou who plays Celie in her first solo role in this big a production. But she’s not flustered and obviously up for the challenge. As a Wits drama graduate, she has maintained her singing lessons because she knows growing as an artist is a process and she wanted to work on her craft in all areas.

She’s excited about participating in this story of oppression and liberation which her Celie so embodies. And she loves the fact that in this time of strength for women, it is a musical and a story that shows exactly that. “That’s where the focus lies.”

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Mister (Aubrey Poo)and Celie, plus ensemble

Celie was raped and abused from the age of 14 – first by her daddy and then her husband who her father sold her to, called simply Mister.

In response to playing this aggressive, abusive character in these times of sensitivity, Aubrey Poo had to dig deep to find the source of this man’s hatred and harshness towards others. But with Mister coming from a place of slavery (and simply understanding how African American men are still treated in their own country), gave him understanding and a place to work from. It takes time for those things to change says Poo and this is how he crafted his character.

Like his two fellow artists, he is hugely excited about the score. “It’s a tough one though. It’s beautiful music but a challenge to sing. It’s quite high for my voice but very cleverly written,” he believes.

It’s interesting that after so many years (arguably decades), it is now that The Color Purple will finally be staged locally. It wasn’t planned this way, but that’s why certain stories are classics, as they stand the test of time – and can usually slot into a specific period. But, it could hardly be more appropriate than right now.

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Shug Avery (pink pants) and Harpo (Yamikani ). Celie is at the sewing machine. with the female ensemble in dance


And while the story is set in the US, the two countries share so many similarities in their dire record of race relations that this story plays out with authenticity.

But locally, the excitement of The Color Purple is also the cast. Many of these performers have been given their first big chance and just listening to some of the big sounds, it’s no great risk to predict that they are going to rock their audience.

And if by any chance you think the topic is too much to handle in a musical, think Sarafina. It doesn’t get much heavier than that.

  • Tickets are available now: phone 0861 670 670, go online at or book in person at the Joburg Theatre box office.  Theatre patrons can also pay at selected Pick N Pay stores. Show runs at the Joburg Theatre on the Mandela Stage until March 4.