DIANE DE BEER
THE COLOR PURPLE
DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman
CAST: Didintle Khunou (Celie), Lerato Mvelase (Shug Avery), Aubrey Poo (Mister), Neo Motaung (Sofia), Sebe Leotlela (Nettie), Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri (Harpo) and the rest of the 20-strong ensemble
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Bernard Jay
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Sarah Roberts
RESIDENT DIRECTOR: Timothy LeRoux
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mannie Mannim
SOUND DESIGNER: Richard Smith
MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Rowan Bakker (and part of an orchestra of 8)
CHORO0EGRAPHER: Oscar Buthelezi
VENUE: Nelson Mandela at the Joburg Theatre
DATES: Until March 4
It’s always a gamble these huge musical productions but following Dream Girls and King Kong specifically, we have built up enough of a track record to understand that we can pull it off.
And as this one proves incontrovertibly, we easily have the depth of performance talent. This is BIG music, but what that means is that it gives a musical veteran like Aubrey Poo an opportunity to sing a number like Celie’s Curse as he has never sung before – and he has had many amazing moments on stage in the past, but here he lets rip with an emotional heft that is completely in sync with the character. On the other side of the spectrum, it gives a solo newcomer like Didintle Khunou the chance to shine as she takes Celie and gives the character life. Both make these moments majestically their own – again and again.
As a musical, it is the perfect storm for right now. Based on the acclaimed Alice Walker story, the reach is wide and covers a multitude of sins, including substance, gender and domestic abuse so dominant in our current world which is what makes this such a relevant piece.
In our country with so much strife, a celebration of especially black talent in a world where the stories are still told from a predominantly white point of view is important and poignant, hence the magical reaction and participation of the audience. There was no doubt about their appreciation of what they were encountering on stage.
And rightly so. For audiences, this is a musical to get stuck into. It’s not about pretty songs and lively dancing. It’s grappling with intense emotions while telling a story of a young girl who after being raped by her father resulting in two pregnancies, is given to a brutal man who treats her in similar fashion. She’s his to look after and he can do with her as he wishes. She has absolutely no say in the matter.
Anyone who could bring some light into her days is banished, like her sister Nettie, with Mister (her husband) making sure she never hears from her again. It’s a miserable life still experienced by so many voiceless in this world.
While abuse tops the list, many other issues are dealt with, including refugees – a problem of our time, but as this one shows, nothing new. But even in the worst of times, redemption is a possibility and that is what gives this musical its power. People can step up and change and others can embrace the moment in all its authenticity. It’s a musical with quite a few teary moments – which is not the norm with these kinds of spectacles.
Speaking to some of the soloists beforehand, all of them commented on the music and how tough these songs are to sing. But they have stepped up and inhabited the music – all of them, soloists and ensembles included.
From the chorus of three women (Lelo Ramasimong, Dolly Louw, Ayanda Sibisi) who throughout comment sharply on what is on their mind, to Khunou as the earnest Celie and Mvelase as the flamboyant Shug Avery, the show-stopping Any Little Thing by Sofia (Motaung) and Harpo (Mahaka-Phiri), which brings much needed light relief, while Leotlela taps into her emotions as Nettie when she tells her sister about her children, it’s musical heaven.
With a stunning set design, which is uncluttered and allows the lighting to tell magnificent tales, to the choreography that pushes boundaries, underpinned by the Honeyman staging which pulls the story together – which is no easy task – this is a sublime coming together of all the elements.
It is a musical where you have to engage, you have to listen to the lyrics and allow the performers to take over with their emotions in full flow. It’s high notes and low in both song and understanding, it’s detailed with heaps of humanity first trampled on and then celebrated.
And in the South African context, it’s about time. We have so many stories to tell and with our diversity at the forefront, it should cover the full spectrum and allow everyone to shine as they do on that stage.
It’s truly glorious to experience how we take a universal story and make it our own.