By BRUCE DENNILL
The Color Purple / Directed by Janice Honeyman / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg 8.5
The Color Purple is, on paper, hardly the stuff of a fun night out. It’s packed with prejudice, abuse and violence (physical, psychological and emotional) and focuses on the lives of a group of poor rural Southern folks. They’re struggling with the racism that was so prevalent in Georgia (where the action is set) in the first half of the 20th Century – not that it’s necessarily gone now – as well as the sexism and all the associated self-image issues that came with the patriarchal nature of their own culture.
But the nature of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale, unfurled end to end, is that it reveals the beauty in the heart-rending struggle and the strength behind the tragic pain. And the writers of the musical, along with this production’s crack South African team, make getting to the end of that journey via the less intricate detail of the stage script and the rich musical landscape of the soundtrack, a rather special experience.
There are elements of the show that leap out and grab you from the off – notably the first time the full company sings together in Mysterious Ways, raising goosebumps as they saunter through the arrangement and the first key change of the performance with deceptive ease. This is not simple music, but it is wonderfully fitted to the singers who deliver it (or vice versa), so it feels incredibly natural and authentic. And it underlines why gospel music remains so foundational to so many other genres and perpetually popular in its own right.
That is followed by Didintle Khunou’s first solo as Celie, and the revelation that is the petite actress’ ability to perfectly control each note and inflection, but also to fill the space she occupies with remarkable attention to detail, adding up to a stage presence that is bewilderingly heftier than her elfin frame. There’s a moment much later when, after around two hours of acting, Celie is expected to simply sit and read a letter narrated elsewhere on stage. She’s not in the spotlight at the time, and all she’s doing is looking at a piece of paper – if Khunou took the opportunity to take her foot off the gas for a second, very few audience members would even notice. But she doesn’t: her face conveys a wider range of emotions in that brief period than some other actors manage in a full play, and it shows a stamina and an ability to focus that is astonishing in any actor but mind-blowing in someone in their first stage musical lead.
She gets superb support from the other leads. Aubrey Poo as Mister, the older man to whom Celie is presented (or abandoned, depending on your perspective) convinces throughout his character’s complicated arc, and nearly matches Khunou for nuance and passion in his performance of Celie’s Curse. Sebe Leotlela as Celie’s sister Nettie is sensible, strong and sensitive all at once – and another beautiful singer. Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri goes from timid to tough brilliantly as Harpo, and Lerato Mvelase, bar a couple of tiny accent slips, cause the audience to love her Shug Avery as much as Mister and Celie do, peaking in her full-blooded performance of the earthy Push Da Button.
A striking all-timber set (Sarah Roberts is the production designer), Mannie Manim’s shrewd lighting and fantastic musical direction from Rowan Bakker (his eight-piece band create a sound that both fills the theatre and has exquisitely isolated instruments, allowing you, for instance, to hear the full tone of the saxophone) create a platform that supports and embraces the actors, allowing them to give their full attention to their roles.
The first – and much longer – act is, in this particular production, more or less unimpeachable. In the second, though, the piece’s only discernible weakness emerges. Without being able to easily compare the book, the film and the different stage versions, it’s difficult to know if the writing deals with the subject matter in the same way all the time or if this particular script is an anomaly, but there is a period in which Celie gets angry and inspires similarly strong feelings in the audience as she rages. During that segment, most of the story’s major themes are touched on – religion (specifically anger directed at God); gender issues; self-worth and more – but they are addressed so briefly and with such broad strokes that audience members invested in the profundity of the matters at hand will feel that they’ve been short-changed. Celie’s claiming of her identity in I’m Here is inspiring. But having the audience whoop and holler in response to bitter complaints about God, men in general and anything else that has caused Celie pain suggests that the lessons regarding temperance, love and support that have been delicately woven into the story (and which have given Celie the strength to survive) have been rather overshadowed by the shock of having a previously subjugated woman so bluntly turning the tables. The inconsistency is made more noticeable by the strength of the hook – “Look what God has done” – in the celebratory reprise of the title track that closes the piece.
In the context of the whole show, this is hardly a blip and it doesn’t take away from the multi-layered entertainment value, which is likely to be difficult to better this year.
An inspired production.