The Color Purple cast. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Color Purple cast. Picture: SUPPLIED

Not only is there a sense of hope and renewal sweeping through SA politics, but Black History Month in February was a positive game-changer for black representation and identity at the local theatre and movie box-office too.

Black Panther, the Disney film set in the Marvel superhero universe and depicting the fictitious African country of Wakanda, had the third-highest opening in SA ever. It scooped R16.8m in its opening weekend and was seen by 200,000 ecstatic local cinema-goers.

In East and West Africa, the movie smashed records to chalk up the biggest box-office debut ever.

SA father-and-son acting team John and Atandwa Kani (who is currently enrolled in the graduate acting programme at New York University) speak Xhosa in the film. Connie Chiume also features, and local artists Babes Wodumo and Jabulani Hadebe take pride of place on the Billboard-topping soundtrack.

#WakandaForever is trending on social media as audiences around the world rave about Black Panther’s depiction of an empowered and strong Africa — a continent that is often portrayed in popular culture as downtrodden and exploited.

Bringing it home

Sometimes, it seems, it takes a story from outside our borders to highlight and articulate local black excellence.

Another superhero tale of sorts has been playing to full houses at the Joburg Theatre — The Color Purple, the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s celebrated novel. Directed with finesse by Janice Honeyman, the acclaimed production features an all-South African, all-black powerhouse cast.

The musical may be set in the southern US state of Georgia in the years between 1909 and 1949, but its themes echo the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Yet its success lies not in portraying victimhood but in showing how its protagonists find their voices in glorious, rousing fashion.

Producer Bernard Jay, who has been trying to get the musical on local stages for a number of years, explains: "I was determined to produce The Color Purple in SA because I believed it would resonate with our audiences."

He says that after going on an "emotional roller coaster", audiences feel a sense of catharsis as they share in the redemption and joy of the main character, Celie. "There is hope for everyone: a universal coming together of trust in the future."

Didintle Khunou, who stars as Celie, agrees that art has the power to "influence and reflect our lives". She notes: "People are becoming more aware of the social issues we have been conditioned by, and are now taking active, small steps towards changing perspectives."

Her character mirrors this voyage towards self-acceptance and self-discovery. "She’s had to silence her voice in a society driven by patriarchy and other oppressive systems that keep her from understanding her authentic voice — and expressing it," says Khunou.

"Her journey towards finding her voice shows how we can use ourselves as vessels for change, to shift and expand our perspectives of ourselves and the world. It’s very important to move away from being the damsels in distress ... [and] be sources of refuge to ourselves."

The young University of the Witwatersrand graduate, an exceptional performer with the potential to become the next Leleti Khumalo, says that while The Color Purple is very much about galvanising women to speak up, it’s also about men overcoming patriarchal traditions and not being victims of their circumstances. Plus, she says, it’s also vital for black people in particular to see stories about themselves playing out on stage.

"It speaks to representation. Men and women come to the show and are touched by the story, seeing characters who are very much like them, who are going through what they are going through themselves or have gone through in the past, and then the story having a practical and spiritual solution. It leaves people feeling inspired ... it resonates with the idea of the power of the human spirit."

The Colour Purple’s run at the Joburg Theatre ends on March 4 and there will be special performances of the play for Women's Month in August at the Joburg Theatre. Black Panther is currently on at cinemas across SA