JOHANNESBURG - "Girl child ain't safe in a family of mens! / Sick and tired how a woman still live like a slave/ Oh, you better learn how to fight back / While you still alive! / You show them, girl, and beat back that jive! / Cause when a man jus' don't give a damn... Hell no! / Hell no!!"
These lyrics, sung by Sofia, one of the characters in the musical The Color Purple, articulate the central message of the production: men try to subjugate women, who eventually fight back.
In keeping with the global zeitgeist of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the Joburg Theatre's production of the award-winning show is a timely and essential offering.
Based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker, the musical tells the story of Celie, who grows up and lives her life at the behest of men in the early 1900s in rural Georgia. Celie's father Alphonso repeatedly rapes her and when she gives birth to two children, he rips both from her arms and gives them away.
Slavery may be abolished but Celie is treated like one. Alphonso tears her away from her beloved younger sister, Nettie, and she is handed over to be married to the abusive widower Albert 'Mister' Johnson, who just wants someone who will work like a servant on his tobacco farm, and look after his many children.
Mister forbids Celie from having contact with Nettie, and as the years pass, Celie comes to believe Nettie is dead, with Mister intercepting their letters to one another.
The musical The Color Purple is based on the 1982 novel written by Alice Walker and the 1985 motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. CREDIT: Rehearsal photo/enroCpics
Celie may appear to have accepted her lot, but she is buoyed by her encounters with two strong-willed and independent women: Sofia, who marries Mister's son Harpo, and Shug Avery, a jazz singer and Mister's former lover.
When Harpo takes advice from Mister and Celie, that the only way to make Sofia "jump when I say jump" is to beat her, the no-nonsense Sofia packs her bags and leaves, showing Celie that women do not have to accept abuse.
Shug Avery is the first person besides Nettie to show Celie any love, telling her she's not the ugly woman her father and Mister have labelled her as. When Shug meets a new man, she takes Celie away from Mister and the two engage in a romantic relationship.
The local cast of The Color Purple is dynamic, inspiring and superbly talented. Didintle Khunou's personification of Celie is nonpareil. The young actress (she's only 25) crawls into the hearts of the audience members while Lerato Mvelase, who plays Shug Avery, is a joy to behold. Neo Motaung's Sofia easily rivals Oprah Winfrey's portrayal of the same character in the 198e film version of the story.
The Color Purple is set to a joyous score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues. CREDIT: Rehearsal photo/enroCpics
The music, performed by a live orchestra, is a joyful mix of jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues, featuring beautiful crescendo choruses and simple, moving melodies.
The Color Purple is about how the downtrodden can find hope and joy and about the strength women can find when they support each other. It is a story about triumph over adversity, hope over fear, and above all, about the power of love.
Sunday's gala opening was the most engaged theatre crowd I’ve ever sat with, with theatre-goers enthralled all the way, loudly affirming a piece of sassy or wise dialogue, or laughing and clapping to the music throughout.
The Color Purple delivers a profound message of self-affirmation. 'But most of all I'm thankful for loving who I really am. I'm beautiful. Yes, I'm beautiful, and I'm here," Celie can eventually admit.
The production is staged at The Joburg Theatre from January 31 to March 4.