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Introducing The Color Purple’s Celie & Shug Avery

In August 2016, director Janice Honeyman, executive producer Bernard Jay and musical director Rowan Bakker embarked on a search for the two women who would be chosen to play the lead roles of Celie and Shug Avery in the Tony Award winning musical The Color Purple, to be staged for the first time in South Africa in 2018 and with an all-South African cast.

The roles have a top line pedigree. British actress Cynthia Erivo received huge and unanimous acclaim for her starring role as Celie, first in the British premier of The Color Purple in 2013 at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and then repeating her personal triumph on Broadway in New York in the 2015 revival, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. The role of Shug Avery has recently been played in New York by award-winning performers Jennifer Hudson (an Oscar for the movie of Dreamgirls), Heather Headley (an Olivier Award for the UK stage premier of The Bodyguard) and Jennifer Holliday (a Tony Award for the original stage production of Dreamgirls).

After grueling auditions in Cape Town, Pretoria and Joburg of over 250 performers, the team finally found South Africa’s answers for the two currently most coveted female roles in musical theatre. Today, we are excited to reveal the two South African actresses who will be playing these roles in the first major international production of The Color Purple since the Broadway revival.

At a media junket, held at Joburg Theatre, it was revealed that Didintle Khunou will be playing the role of Celie – a caring and gentle girl whose resilience is truly miraculous and ultimately a tribute to humankind – and Molebatsi Lekgetha will be playing the role of Shug Avery – the archetypal blues woman, with her earthy wisdom and singer lifestyle.

Didintle Khunou, 25, is a Wits School of Arts graduate, having obtained a BA Honours Degree in Dramatic Arts. She has made many television appearances, the most recent being the second season of SABC2’s popular Sotho drama series Mamello, directed by SAFTA award-winning director Zuko Nodada.   Didintle played the lead in an adaptation of Yerma, the stage play written by Federico Garcia Lorca and directed by award winning actor and director, Rajesh Gopie. Didintle is a flexible performer, having performed in Bertolt Brecht’s epic play The Caucasian Chalk Circle and sang and danced in a children’s musical, A Year with Frog and Toad. Didintle has two short films under her belt and is currently working on her first lead role in a feature film.

Born and raised in Pretoria, Molebatsi Lekgetha, 33, began exploring her talent as a performer in primary school. Her love and passion for the arts directed her to study and complete a BA (Drama) Degree at the University of Pretoria. She immediately landed a lead role in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Market Theatre, for which she received a Naledi Award Nomination for Best Performance By A Newcomer. Her career soared as she played another principal role in Soweto Story at Joburg Theatre and in the same year Molebatsi worked with director James Ngcobo in The Amen Corner, followed by Mamma Mia! in 2010. As a multifaceted performer and talent, Molly has not limited herself to theatre, but also made her mark in playing various roles in TV shows such as Generations and Death of a Queen. When she is not performing, she is giving back to the community by harnessing and empowering the black youth through dance, music, writing and directing workshops.

Producer Bernard Jay speaks about the creative team’s choices for these two roles: “With the extraordinary caliber of artists who have received awards and acclaim for playing these two roles on stage previously, we are aware of the pressure on us in South Africa to not only compete, but also deliver. Janice, Rowan and I were instantly knocked-out by Didi and Molly at the auditions. Now, the ironic use of the expression ‘no pressure’ on our two leading ladies has never had more relevance….but I’m confident that, together, they will ‘blow the roof off’ the theatre.”

Didintle and Molebatsi join a talented all South African cast, which features (in alphabetical order) Zane Gillion, Sebe Leotlela (as Nettie), Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri (as Harpo), Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung (as Sofia), Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo (as Mister), Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko.

The director is Janice Honeyman, musical director Rowan Bakker, production designer Sarah Roberts, lighting designer Mannie Manim and The Color Purple is produced by Joburg Theatre and Bernard Jay in association with MNet and 702.

The Color Purple is based upon the 1982 novel written by Alice Walker and the 1985 Warner Bros/Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture, directed by Steven Spielberg. The musical’s book is by Marsha Norman and the music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The musical The Color Purple was originally produced on Broadway in 2005 by Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, Roy Furman and Quincy Jones, receiving eleven 2006 Tony Award nominations. The recent Broadway revival enjoyed tremendous success, boosted by its major Tony Award wins in 2016 and Grammy Award in 2017.

The musical will have preview performances in The Mandela at Joburg Theatre from January 31st 2018, with its official opening night on Sunday February 4th and running until Sunday March 4th 2018. Tickets from R240 are already on sale: telephone 0861 670 670, go online at www.joburgtheatre.com or book in person at the Joburg Theatre box office. Theatre patrons can also book online and pay at selected Pick N Pay stores.