Johannesburg - I’m met by the strong smell of freshly cut and sanded wood as I enter The Joburg Theatre – the new home of the celebrated musical The Color Purple.
The set transports me to the rural American south. On the stage, director Janice Honeyman is hard at work with the team as they prepare the stage for the cast’s first placing on what will be their month-long platform of storytelling.
“I’m really excited about the set,” she says. “What I love about it is that it’s abstract, and yet it’s specific.”
It’s all been created by production designer Sarah Roberts.
“We’re making the stage bigger than it’s ever been,” Roberts says. “Right down to where the orchestra is usually situated will be part of the stage.”
The production, which is based on the 1982 novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Alice Walker, tells the incredibly relatable and powerful story of a woman named Celie, who, through love and friendship, finds the strength to discover her unique voice in the world. It’s been praised as one of the most profound musicals so far produced because it entertains and ultimately uplifts audiences by taking them on an inspiring journey.
The South African producers spent four years negotiating for the rights and preparing for this local theatrical coup – this will be the first major international staging of the musical.
The show’s executive producer, Bernard Jay, says: “The Color Purple has been around since 2005 as a musical. I’d been looking at it for quite a while without knowing that there was a production coming back on to Broadway in 2015 that was going to give it this entirely new energy. So we now become the first major international staging of The Color Purple since its recent Broadway success.”
Marsha Norman faithfully adapted the book for the stage, and the music and lyrics were developed by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
‘Celie reminds me of myself’
Following some gruelling auditions in Cape Town, Pretoria and Joburg of more than 250 performers, Honeyman, Jay and musical director Rowan Bakker were able to find two stars to play the show’s two most coveted roles – Celie and Shug Avery.
Twenty-five-year old Didintle Khunou was cast as Celie, and Lerato Mvelase landed the role of Shug.
Khunou is a Wits School of Arts graduate and has a BA honours in dramatic arts. She’s made many television appearances, the most recent being in the second season of SABC2’s popular Sotho drama series, Mamello, which is directed by SA Film and Television Award-winning director Zuko Nodada.
The character Celie is an African-American woman struggling against patriarchy and abuse in rural 20th-century Georgia.
Khunou says that, when she auditioned for the part, all she wanted was to be part of the production and she didn’t care which role she’d get – as long as she could be included in the musical.
“[I didn’t care] if I was going to be a swing or understudy everyone – just being part of the show is what mattered to me.”
Khunou will have to convey important messages about black women, and the racism and sexism they face in a prejudiced world.
“I had to figure out what aspects of Celie and her belief system were close to mine, or maybe a belief system that I used to have. And I realised that maybe there’s a reason I got cast for this role. The character very much reminds me of myself when I was a few years younger in varsity – having low self-esteem, having to find my voice and having to shape opinions that belong to me about the world and about myself,” she says.
“I’ve also experienced being forced and I’ve experienced losing a pregnancy. I’ve experienced many things, and that actually makes me realise how similar Celie and I are, and that is why preparing was difficult at times. I had to dig up my own wounds.”
All in the music
Behind the stage, I walk through different sections of the theatre, each with a team hard at work on the set and preparing the lights. There are some great foot tapping melodies to be heard in the distance as Bakker and his team fine-tune the music.
Bakker says: “I will probably be in tears every night in the pit conducting the show. There’s just so much feeling in this music.”
The songs in the show are so emotionally potent that they will stay with you for days. In particular; Somebody Gonna Love You, Too Beautiful for Words, The Color Purple, I’m Here and What About Love? are remarkable.
Khunou says: “Before I started working with the director, I got an acting coach called Steven Feinstein, who is probably one of the best. I started the process of finding out who Celie is; doing the foundational research by watching a lot of films about black men and women’s experiences in the early 20th century. I watched The Color Purple film and read the novel more than four times.”
Khunou says she also had to get a singing coach so that she could understand the technical side of singing that is required in a musical.
“I’m not a professional singer, which is another aspect of this role that’s quite challenging, but I’m growing.”
Khunou has an astoundingly powerful voice when belting out the ballads.
Honeyman says the cast is energetic and takes great pride in the piece.
“I think they’ve also quite enjoyed not having to do a show about white people. They’re doing a show about themselves, which has created a wonderful atmosphere in creating this production.
“When the book came out just after I left university, there was almost a Color Purple cult. Women couldn’t believe that this book had come out and that it was as specific and wonderful as it was, and I was part of that. Over almost 40 years, I have reread the book from time to time, so when Bernard Jay offered it to me, I was thrilled,” Honeyman says.
Playing the brutal, whip-wielding Mister, to whom Celie is sold into marriage, is legendary theatre performer Aubrey Poo. This will be his fourth major musical, and he says he’s been able to immerse himself in the character by staying in the moment.
“I don’t identify with the things he does, but a big part of the things that Mister does and says has a human part to it. If you are to understand why people do things – people who feel done in by the world and feel that they can do anything to anyone – it helps to get into the character.”
The female experience
I watch while Khunou is coached on how to master a Southern accent. She doesn’t oversell herself, but instead – like Celie – goes gently through her words and posture, and graciously asks those in the room to listen even when she whispers.
As our conversation continues in the theatre, Khunou astounds me as she develops a muscular voice and presence, passionately talking about how she wants – through Celie – to ruffle patriarchal feathers.
“Our African cultures are very patriarchal by nature, and the story really highlights the female experience and, at the same time, challenges the male characters in terms of how they perform masculinity – and we are very familiar with those roles as black Africans where the male voice is the dominant one. So what I hope we would resonate with and be inspired by is following the black female experience and how she navigates through her world in a way that overcomes her adversities that are caused by patriarchy.”
At the end of The Color Purple, Khunou is going to emerge as a bona fide star.
Make sure you don’t miss the show – you’ll be treated to an amazing musical, you’ll probably cry and, most importantly, you’ll definitely learn important lessons about intersectionality through musical theatre.
The Color Purple will show from 2vFebruary to 31 March at The Joburg Theatre. Tickets cost R150 to R400 at joburgtheatre.com