ArtSpoken & Reviews

The Color Purple: An emotive journey

Peter Feldman
02/05/2018 11:48:40

Peter Feldman: My relationship with "The Color Purple" goes back some 19 years, so it is with immense pleasure that I finally got to see this vibrant musical on stage at the Joburg Theatre.

Alice Walker wrote "The Color Purple" in 1983 and it won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award at the time. Two years later Steven Spielberg turned it into a movie - his eighth as a director - and it received critical acclaim.

Author Alice Walker refused to allow the film to be screened in South Africa because of apartheid. When I interviewed Spielberg in Los Angeles in 1991 on another assignment, I asked him whether the film would ever be released in South Africa - and he replied he thought it would, once the apartheid system was completely abolished. I filed this story which made headlines.

After the advent of Democracy in 1994, the film eventually surfaced and, not having read the book, I was touched by the themes it expounded: courage, redemption, love and hope.

Watching this musical version come alive in Johannesburg with its all-South African cast of talented players certainly brought back a few memories - and I am delighted to report that this dynamic cast, many of whom had never performed in a musical before, ticked all the boxes and had the capacity audience cheering for more.

For me it was an immensely emotive journey. The production is brilliantly directed by the always reliable Janice Honeyman, who elicits precise performances from her cast.

Though the subject matter is controversial and cuts to the bone, the show never gets bogged down by its dark theme.

The key figure in the musical is Celie (Didintle Khunou), a poor, uneducated 14-year-old girl living in the American South in the 1930s. Her father beats her harshly and rapes her continuously, resulting in the birth of a baby boy, Adam, whom the father takes away. She then has a second child by her abusive father, a girl named Olivia, whom the father also abducts.

Celie's ailing mother dies and Celie and her younger sister, 12-year-old Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), learn that a man named Mister (Aubrey Poo) wants to marry Nettie. When the father refuses to allow this to happen he arranges for Celie to marry Mister, whom it transpires is another rude and abusive individual who treats her badly. Nettie, meanwhile, runs away and makes a life for herself as a missionary in Africa.

Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri plays Harpo, Mister's son, and Neo Motaung is cast as the strong, assertive Sofia who loves Harpo and who befriends Celie.

An important facet of the unfolding drama is a sultry blues singer named Shug Avery, deliciously portrayed by Lerato Mvelase. She first appears as Mister's mistress, and then becomes Celie's friend and eventually her lover. Shug remains a gentle mentor who helps Celie evolve into an independent and assertive woman. At first, Shug doesn't appear to be the mothering and nurturing kind, yet she nurtures Celie physically, spiritually, and emotionally. She helps Celie discover her sister's letters which had been hidden from her and this gives her even more hope and inspiration.

Aubrey Poo, as the bullying Mister, also shines, once again demonstrating his versatility as an actor.

The musical, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, boasts a number of soaring songs that stir the soul, many with a sharp-edged gospel influence. The numbers allow the singers to demonstrate their vocal dexterity. Four of the performers - Khunou, Motaung, Mvelase and Leotlela - make outstanding contributions to the overall impact of the show and are a delight to hear.

Adding to the visual splendour of the production is the Sarah Roberts designed set. It's simple, functional and most effective. The live band, under Rowan Bakker's command, and Mannie Manim's lighting design, also contribute immensely to the show's enjoyment.

The theme of "The Colour Purple" about abusive relationships is as relevant today as it was decades ago and certainly elevates the audience to an emotional high. It is a profound experience.

The Color Purple is on at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre until March 4.

Peter Feldman has been a journalist and arts critic for almost 50 years and served on The Star in various capacities for 35 years, ending up as a specialist writer on films, music and theatre. During that time, he travelled extensively on assignments and interviewed many international film and pop stars, both in South Africa and overseas. He also covered some of South Africa's biggest film and musical events. He was one of only two South African journalists to be invited by Steven Spielberg to the Hook film junket in LA in 1991 where he interviewed the famous director as well as Dustin Hoffman and the late Robin Williams. He attended the gala James Bond premiere in London in 1981 and did an iconic interview in a Rolls Royce with Roger Moore who played Bond. He spent a week touring England with Queen prior to their Sun City visit in 1983, interviewed a host of international stars on films sets in Hollywood and London and was the first local journalist to nail an interview with The Rolling Stones prior to their SA visit in 1995.

He is active in the freelance field and his work has appeared in a variety of South African newspapers and magazines, including He has also worked on TV and radio (ChaiFM 101.9) in his specialist capacity. Over the years Feldman has been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the SA record industry. He is a recent recipient of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz award in recognition for his long standing journalistic support for the arts. He wrote lyrics for some top artists, including Sipho Mabuse, and had a hit disco single, "Video Games," which was released in 1988. He coined the phrase “Local is Lekker.”
Related Venue:
Joburg Theatre Complex, Loveday Street Braamfontein Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa