Joy and pain: Jazz singer Shug Avery (played by Lerato Mvelase), left, and Harpo (played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri) in the local musical based on the classic cult novel by Alice Walker. Sofia (Neo Motaung) is on the far right. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS
Joy and pain: Jazz singer Shug Avery (played by Lerato Mvelase), left, and Harpo (played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri) in the local musical based on the classic cult novel by Alice Walker. Sofia (Neo Motaung) is on the far right. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS

Janice Honeyman feels strongly that the musical The Colour Purple, based on the classic novel by Alice Walker, speaks accurately about the black experience.

Celie, a young African American girl, is the focus of a story of hardship and abuse.

Honeyman, an experienced director, says the storytelling leaves no room for manoeuvre in the local production and that is what she loves best about it. The story propels the musical forward and she is intent on honouring that.

The Color Purple is about people in power who feel entitled to abuse those without a voice. It’s a huge story that goes beyond gender and race and it’s a story of our time.

"It’s a story of the heart that has nothing to do with separatism," Honeyman says.

Performed in SA: Left: Shug Avery, played by Lerato Mvelase, left, and Celie, the central character in The Color Purple, played by Didintle Khunou. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS
Performed in SA: Left: Shug Avery, played by Lerato Mvelase, left, and Celie, the central character in The Color Purple, played by Didintle Khunou. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS

For the three soloists, the joy and the challenges of the show go hand in hand. In the pain of the story, there’s joy, says Lerato Mvelase, who plays Avery Shug, the jazz singer who becomes Celie’s (Didintle Khunou) friend and support.

The retelling of the story written by Walker in 1982 and filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1985 shines a light on the friendship and support of women.

It is being staged in SA when women around the world are reaching out to each other in the #MeToo movement to break cycles of abuse that appeared never-ending.

SA has an extremely high incidence of violence and abuse against women, and The Color Purple is a story to which many can relate.

But, says Mvelase, who was last on stage as Petal in the musical King Kong, the music has her excited and energised.

"I thought I knew it all. I am challenged not only by the people in the room, the magnificent voices, but also by the music. I am singing notes I thought were impossible," she says.

"It’s humbling to work on your craft in a story that is still of this time. What has been done to our women? But also, what have men endured to become who they are? It will help us all to heal, reflect and take something away to think about.

"It’s an extremely emotional show that underlines that no matter what we go through, there’s always laughter."

Abusive husband Mister (Aubrey Poo) and Celie. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS
Abusive husband Mister (Aubrey Poo) and Celie. Picture: ENROCPICS/CORNÉ DU PLESSIS

Mvelase’s character best embodies these dilemmas. Shug "has been rejected by her own people but through her liberation, the other women are given the key.

"They don’t know how, but once Shug has their attention, men and women start relating to one another," she says.

This is Khunou’s first solo role in a production of this size but she’s not flustered and is up for the challenge. A Wits drama graduate, she has continued her singing lessons because she knows that growing as an artist is a process and she wants to work on all areas of her craft.

She’s excited about participating in this story of oppression and liberation which Celie embodies. And she loves the fact that, in this time of rising strength for women, the musical shows how to achieve that. "That’s where the focus lies."

Celie was raped and abused from age 14 by her father and then by Mister, the husband to whom her father sold her.

To play this aggressive, abusive character, Aubrey Poo had to dig deep to find the source of Mister’s hatred and violence towards others. By understanding that Mister is a descendant of slaves and that African American men are still treated badly in their country gave him a place from which to work. It takes time for those things to change, says Poo, and this is how he crafted his character.

He is excited about the score. "It’s a tough one, though. It’s beautiful music but a challenge to sing. It’s quite high for my voice but very cleverly written."

Although the story is set in the US, it shares so many similarities in the dire record of race relations with SA that it is authentic on a local stage. Sarafina was a hugely popular musical that also dealt with violence.

Many of the performers in Honeyman’s production have been given their first big chance. Listening to some of the big sounds they produce, it’s easy to predict that they are going to rock their audiences.

• The Color Purple is at the Joburg Theatre on the Mandela Stage from until March 4.