THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.
The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.
With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.
But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.
Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.
It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.
And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.
One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.
That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.
- The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by 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, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit joburgtheatre.com