It has to be said that for all the noise that there is about a lack of audiences in South African theatres, producers are starting to see that if you want new audiences, you need to start telling stories that represent them.
There’s a new development in local theatres that is seeing a budding of musicals telling black stories and showcasing immense black talent that’s hardly been seen before. This started with the revival of King Kong last year, (it was SA’s first black musical and launched the careers of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba) and Tsotsi The Musical, which just finished its run at Cape Town’s Artscape.
This is not happening in isolation. It links in with the current global movement that is seeing the representation and portrayal of black stories told authentically and brilliantly in works such as Inxeba; Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar; Jordan Peele’s Get Out; Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. These are cultural, political milestones.
That The Color Purple is on in SA during America’s Black History Month is not an accident. And it was with delight to walk into the Joburg Theatre and see a full house of a predominantly black audience ready to take on the musical. The all-South African cast and creative team also share in what makes this recent production so magical.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 classic novel and the 1985 Steven Spielberg film, The Color Purple tells the resonant story of Celie, a woman who through love, finds the strength to triumph over adversity, enabling her to find her own voice in the world. In the South African production Celie is played by Didintle Khunou.
From the opening note, the sheer vocal brilliance of the ensemble cast was palpable, it was as if they were bragging. Perhaps the cast had been thirsting for such an opportunity just as we the audience had been thirsting to receive it. High quality performances were maintained right through, from the cast to the band, highlighting the richness of the music of America’s Deep South with its jazz, blues, ragtime and gospel and the composition prowess of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
The musical was in the capable direction of Janice Honeyman who breaks records every year at the Joburg Theatre with her annual popular pantomimes. Her vast experience and versatility ensured a sensibility that balanced the comedy with the serious, the sad with the sorrow. Sarah Roberts’ minimalistic wooden set was in a sense a subtext for the period of the story and for how women continue to be stripped bare by a patriarchal society.
It is Walker’s endearing and enduring characters, however (whose images were brought to life by Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery in the film) that resonate the most. They endure because the issues that the women deal with in the book are still the same today, and that is why the recreated images and words from The Color Purple keep coming up in popular culture. Think of Erykah Badu’s On and On, Brandy’s Beggin & Pleadin and how Sophia’s famous line, “All my life I had to fight” made it into Kendrick Lamar’s intro in his Alright track in the album To Pimp A Butterfly.
The gutsy Sophia is a patronus for many women; a liberated Shug Avery is an idol, and how Celie finds romance in the women in her life is inspiring.
The Color Purple is a story for all time and the South African premiere of the musical is a stomping success whose positive vibrations make you not want to leave the theatre.
Catch it at the Joburg Theatre until March 4.