StageArt has fast established themselves as one of the most exciting and innovative theatre companies in Melbourne and their latest offering is no exception. The Color Purple, a powerful and commanding show in its own right, has been realised as a beautifully staged, impressively cast and emotionally connected piece of theatre. An uplifting triumph; if the opening night’s standing ovation was anything to go by.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book and Oscar winning film of the same name, The Color Purple focuses on the story of Celie, a young African-American woman and her life story beginning in 1930s Georgia in southern America.
In the beginning we meet two young sisters brimming with life and possibility, who share a loving bond. Within minutes, our hearts are broken as we learn that Celie is pregnant, that her babies are born from rape and that they are taken from her by her father who is responsible for the abuse. She is 14 years old. She is chillingly sold into marriage, separated from her sister and confined to work for a malevolent husband in a world where men are cruel and treat their women with no regard. We watch on in hope as she forms relationships with the people living around her, becomes known throughout the town and with the help and care of Shug Avery, a renowned gospel singer, finds her strength in a world which has never shown her any favour.
Director and production designer Robbie Carmellotti has done an impeccable job of pulling this challenging production together, and to his credit, it’s one of the StageArt’s best. Carmellotti has managed to transform the intimate Chapel space into a spacious multipurpose area where the audience is challenged to use its imagination to further inform time, class and location. His casting is full of surprises and they completely engage the audience from beginning to end. Carmellotti manages to move the play seamlessly from scene to scene, weaving the play and its songs like a fine tapestry, most cleverly using a set of stools that evolve into various locations throughout the story. His set design is completed by a series of wooden levels to create a tiered floor and wooden beams canvassed by white tissue paper; a well rounded aesthetic.
Caleb Garfinkel as musical director has assembled a tight and versatile band of five. Although small in number, the quintet produce a full sound for each genre they play, as the score ranges from jazz and blues, to reggae, tribal and gospel. He has also led the cast through some incredible vocal arrangements. The harmonies the cast produce across the show provide some of the most emotionally poignant moments. Choreography by Jayden Hicks is smart, understated and doesn’t pull focus from the storytelling.
Costuming by Rhiannon Irving and Hair and Makeup by Rachel McLean help to give a sense of class, era and authenticity to the piece. Props by Sam Hornstein are effective and appropriate. The lighting is stylistically simple, yet effective; designed by Jason Bovaird and Maddy Seach of Moving Light Productions. The duo incorporate colouring of Carmellotti’s white-paper backdrop set design and carbon filament light globes, which add a rustic-folk element to the staging and help to create warmth or highlight tensions throughout the show. Sound design by Marcello Lo Rico of LSS Productions is evenly balanced and creates appropriate ambiance across the performance.
The cast of the Australasian premiere of The Color Purple is one that must be seen. So rarely are our Australian audiences exposed to productions that dare to or are able to cast people of colour solely from our own local talent-pools. It would be remiss of me to say that their performances are all flawless – not all of them are. There are occasional moments in this show where inexperience does shine through, but that in itself holds a certain beauty when it is obvious that each performer on this stage is bursting with passion, and is telling this story from their heart. It is unfortunate that our industry does not support diversity in the way that would allow for many of the cast of this show to experience regular work. Some of these performers would so rarely get the chance to hone in on their skills; and there are so few companies willing to take risks and put on shows of this nature to give them opportunity. And this is all the more reason that this show deserves to be seen.
It must also be said though, that the performances that drive this show are world class.
As Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, Anna Francesca Armenia delves in deep to offer an emotionally intelligent performance as the naively happy young girl who is ripped away from her sister. She brings joy to the piece through a series of letters and uses her voice impeccably to age her character.
As Shug Avery, Thando Sikwila embodies confidence and ego, providing the story’s boldest character. She is sexually aware and is both caring and selfishly dismissive. Her vocal abilities are smooth like butter on a warm knife and when she sings it is pure delight, in particular, she shines during the heartfelt ‘Too Beautiful For Words’, the rapturous ‘Push The Button’ and her tender duet with Celie, ‘What About Love’.
Vanessa Menjiva plays Sofia, a ballsy overbearing, yet loveable woman who marries and separates from Harpo, Celie’s sweet natured step-son, played by Iopu Auva’a. Menjiva and Auva’a create some of the show’s lighter, comedic moments, despite their own hardships. Menjiva’s menacing glare and Auva’a’s willingness to please make the pair a crowd favourite.
Kendrew A. Heriveaux, a USA native who currently resides in Melbourne, plays Mister; the overbearing and abusive misogynist who takes Celie as his wife. Heriveaux is horrifically oppressive and cruel. His temper and rage are so vicious that when he tries to seek redemption, it is hard as an audience to forgive him.
Augustin Tchantcho too plays a mean and abusive male in Pa, the man who is responsible for the crimes against Celie through her teenage years. His actions are chilling. He also plays Ole Mister, Mister’s father, and differentiates the two roles through his physicality and vocal tone. Zenya Carmellotti is Squeak, a young girl who briefly becomes involved with Harpo, and also adds to the comic flair of the story with her high pitched voice and know it all attitude.
Nolan Petero, Sasha Hennequin and Anisha Senarante play Doris, Darlene and Jarene respectively. The trio help move the show along as three local gossips who make regular observational commentary about the story’s protagonists. The three are larger than life, and their energy and sass are infectious.
The ensemble are made up of further exciting and fresh faces to the Melbourne theatre scene, including James Ao, Guillaume Gentil, Tsungirai Wachenuka, Gideon Wilonja and Benjamin Samuel. They play various minor roles throughout the show as well as townspeople of the various landscapes depicted. Backing vocalists include Casey Withoos, Gina Mets and Aaron Taylor. While the ensemble may seem few in number, they create a large onstage presence and a powerfully reverberating sound.
Finally, I come to Jayme-Lee Hanekom, who plays Celie. Hanekom is young, but performs this role beyond her years. Everything about her portrayal of Celie is impeccable. Her joyful youth and earnest attitude in the earliest scenes allow you to fall in love with her through her hardships. As she ages, we see her wear these. Despite repeatedly being called “ugly” by her keepers, she is nothing short of beautiful. She continues to reel in the audience, both with powerhouse vocals and through raw and undeniably believable acting. She finds herself vulnerable, she questions God over her life’s disadvantages, she eventually accepts who she is and finds her own inner beauty and value, before finding forgiveness and peace. Hanekom has a seemingly raw talent. She stabs at your heart with her prayerful questioning in ‘Dear God’, and when she wails ‘I’m Here’, you want to pick her up in your arms and hug her tight so that she feels the love she so deserves. By the end of the performance, there was not a dry eye in the house, and that is because along with the rest of the cast of characters, we all fell in love with Celie.
I cannot more highly recommend you go and see this show. The season is selling quickly, and an extra weekend of shows has recently been added. I have no doubt that this too will sell well as people begin to realise that this is one of the most exciting and different theatrical gems we are likely to see in Melbourne for some time. I know I’ll be going back.