By BRUCE DENNILL
Actress Sebe Leotlela returns to the Joburg Theatre after completing a run as part of the ensemble in Janice Honeyman’s pantomime, Pinocchio. She’s reconnecting with the director too, in an exciting new production of The Color Purple, in which Leotlela stars as Nettie, sister to Celie, the tragic figure at the centre of the piece.
Leotlela is already an experienced campaigner in terms of musicals and revues, having appeared in Dirty Dancing, The Sound Of Music and Singing In The Rain, and belting out Tina Turner’s hits, among much else. However, The Color Purple is a rather different animal, taking in jazz, gospel and blues at various points in its soundtrack. Does that make for a different sort of challenge as a performer? Or alternatively, does it allow for an otherwise untapped passion to present itself?
“It’s not a challenge, really,” says Leotlela. “This is the music I grew up with – this is black music. Our voices suit these songs, so we’re not tired after we sing them. They’re in our range – unlike in some other big shows. We sing like this in church. And we like to listen to stuff like this; something with a little bit of soul.”
This particular musical in a South African context is unavoidably political. Its themes of racism and segregation are horribly familiar, but as a whole story, it’s still (mostly) a metaphor for what has informed so much of this country’s history. So, though they will have their onstage reactions and interactions shaped by the script, does the burden of the material weigh heavily on Leotlela, or any of her cast-mates?
“I don’t think of politics being directly out there in the musical,” ventures Leotlela. “We know about it, but it doesn’t affect us.”
She pauses for a moment.
“It might just be me, but I don’t live with the racial thing up front. I have a lot of other races in my circle of friends. I live with white people; they’re my friends. I have a bigger problem in my own life with the sexism I hear from black men. In the play though, I think the audience gets more caught up in Celie’s world and her story than in the bigger themes.”
What about the actors? Who are the story?
“I can turn off the actor thing quite easily,” says Leotlela. “That said, I relate to Nettie quite a lot, Like her, I’m upbeat most of the time. I know there’s something better. And like her, I won’t conform to society. I also have a sister. I also have no parents. So while I know I’m not that person, I have a good idea of how she feels.”
All of this makes for a different type of production for audiences to watch. It’s not the only incredibly tough story on stage – the permanently popular Les Miserables is hardly a barrel of laughs – but Leotlela and the rest of the cast have to effectively communicate all its nuances.
“I think people know the book and have seen the movie – Oprah was in the movie; how can you not know the movie?” grins Leotlela. “It’s a moving story, and it’s not just about the lives of poor black people. Everyone – sadly – can relate to parts of it: the abuse, the sexism, the politics. I think it’s about hope, and healing. This woman gets there. It’s not like other musicals where people break into song for no reason and we all accept that. Here, the music really adds depth to the story.”
Nettie is the most sympathetic character in the whole tale, kind and loving in the midst of so much brutality and sadness. How is it to play that?
“My scenes are mostly with Celie, and I – Nettie – can’t help but be protective of her. I can’t help but be supportive of her – to be her support structure – and to teach her everything I know,” smiles Leotlela. “She keeps a promise she makes to write letters. She doesn’t let up, which is one of the ways she shows her resilience. She’s the only one who never leaves. She sees the bigger picture, and that she can be something more than just a wife or some other role that’s expected of her.
“That too, I get. Like Nettie, I’m from a small town – Sasolburg – and many of the expectations placed on her in terms of how she’s supposed to behave are placed on people there, too.”
Nettie is also, particularly once she travels abroad, the only major link between Celie and her African heritage. Does that ring emotionally true in the performance of the role?
“I don’t think about my being African when I’m sharing information,” reckons Leotlela, “and I think it’s the same for Nettie – that she’s just sharing what she knows and is experiencing with Celie, showing her what’s out there, and also educating the audience at the same time, reminding them of where we’ve been and where we’ve come to.
“It’s worth remembering that Nettie, when she is working in Africa, is not in South Africa – it’s never really specified – so the perspective on the continent in the show will be different to the audiences’ view. One example is in one of the songs I sing. I think there was a bit of gibberish in it when it was written, and Janice and [musical director] Rowan Bakker have now put in some actual language there, so that it means something.”
Nettie, in many of the stances she takes, is a strong feminist, though she’s not the sort of person to be militant about that – that would, again, be conforming to a stereotype, even if it was an unusual one for her someone in her situation.
Leotlela mumbles a little in response. “I get that. I have a boyfriend. He never helps with the cleaning… I think – and I feel Nettie thinks – that we’re all equal, men and women. Let’s all do the same thing and see who does it best. How about that?”
If Nettie can be considered a role model in this regard, does playing her come with any added pressure?
“No,” says Leotlela. “It’s just who she is. She never looks for praise or adulation – she just works to achieve what she wants to achieve. She became a teacher. She was respected. I admire people like that, who set goals and reach them. Nettie took chances. She went to a strange place to make a difference where most people would stay and make excuses about needing to be with family.”
Going places; taking chances. Leotlela has toured internationally with some of the productions she’s been a part of, so she understands that equation. Are there any particular lessons she learned abroad that she’s putting into practice now?
“Discipline,” she states. “Be where you need to be when you need to be there. Apart from being good manners, you could miss so much in the time you’re absent. And I love the way some actors commit in the rehearsal process – I watch them and I learn from that. And lastly, I think, be flexible: throw yourself into the systems, trust the way they work and enjoy yourself.”
The Color Purple is directed by Janice Honeyman and staged in the Mandela Theatre at Joburg Theatre. Book tickets at joburgtheatre.com.