When you watch The Color Purple, you cannot ignore Neo Motaung’s character of Sofia and her relationship with Harpo played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri. These two performers fill the stage with their strong voices and dynamic relationship in a competition for the alpha dog. It’s so clear from the moment I met these two together that there’s a synergy between them. They’ve built their characters’ relationship on the foundation of a real friendship that translates on to stage.
Proud to show off their backstage artist access cards and lanyards, my interview with this duo felt like old friends catching up. Which is not entirely untrue, as Yamikani is a fellow Wits classmate and friend. Still, they let me into their world behind the scenes and were so eager to tell their story and what it means to be part of such an incredible production.
Waydene Laing: What does it mean for you to be a part of this production? What is the significance in being a part of The Color Purple in it’s first production outside of the US and UK?
Neo Motaung: There are no words to describe how big this thing is, especially for me because this is my first big musical ever. So it’s a lot of pressure on me, but I think I’m handling it quite well. But it’s HUGE, and it means the world to me. This is the first of what I need to expect in the industry. If I can keep this up, then I can definitely go beyond borders. It means the world to me.
Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri: There is a lot of pressure. There’s the original one done in 2006 and then the revival, they were so hugely successful on such big platforms both on the West End and Broadway. Here we are in South Africa and essentially we have to represent. We have to show them that our standard is just as high, if not higher. You know, [for example] the quality of our theatre making, our performance, and our sing style. To show them that we can grasp this work and take it to higher heights. There is a lot to live up to and I guess for me it means it’s an opportunity to show what we can do as South Africans.
WL: What is the cast like together in rehearsals? How do you all gel together both inside and outside the rehearsal room, how does that bond form?
Neo: We are pretty close. There’s no hidden agenda’s and everyone is practically on the same page. We’re all going for the same goal so there’s no one who is trying to out-perform somebody else. We’re like a team. We pass each other the ball when we need to.
Yami: Even outside, we’ll all gather in each other’s dressing rooms and share biscuits. We’ll have biscuits and tea, and just chat and laugh and even skinder (gossip) as a cast does. But we are a united cast; a united front.
WL: You play a couple, Sofia and Harpo. How do you develop a working relationship or chemistry between the two of you?
Neo: Me and Yami are close right now!
Yami: We’re so close.
Neo: It’s like we’re best friends. I think for any relationship to work out before that you need to be friends and I think our basis is we decided let’s be close buddies. Literally, we are always together, sometimes giggling on the side or whatever. I think for any relationship you if you’re not friends first it won’t work out and the chemistry won’t be there. The audience will definitely see when it’s not there.
Yami: I actually think our relationship bugs a lot of the cast members. (Laughs) Because they are like, ‘Why are these two always so close? What are they talking about?’ We are husband and wife, so let’s be husband and wife outside as well.
(They both giggle.)
WL: What is the one thing you will take out of the show? How has the show impacted you?
Yami: For me, it would be the magic of an all black cast. I mean I’ve done other shows before with an all black cast, but this very different. Just this experience of feeling that togetherness, that understanding and that shared connection. I’m definitely going to take that away with me.
Neo: When I auditioned for the color purple I was going through a really rough time. I just gave birth at the time so I was a single mom and I was so distraught. And then they gave me Sofia and the character is totally different from what I was going through. She’s this strong woman whose energy is just so vibrant and strong. That is exactly what I want to take with me, a bit of Sofia. I’ve been such a conservative girl who’s very quiet. But I’m going to take Sofia with me wherever I go because she really stands firm and stands strong for what she believes in. I think every black woman needs that.
The Color Purple runs until 4 March 2018 at The Joburg Theatre. Tickets are from R240 available on www.joburgtheatre.com, at The Joburg Theatre boxoffice or call 0861 670 670.
Images by @enroCpics with permission by BSharp Entertainment.