Playing Celie: An interview with Didintle Khunou from The Color Purple SA

Weaving in between the twists and turns of the backstage corridors in amongst the dressing rooms of The Mandela Theatre at the Joburg Theatre, I find myself with the most pleasant and warm-hearted cast members of The Color Purple. Leisurely preparing themselves for the day’s rehearsals, the mood is relaxed and everyone seems at ease and ready to go. The air is pregnant with an anxious cast and crew who are waiting for the time to show off their masterpiece.

This is the first time The Color Purple will be produced and performed outside of the US, and along with the blessings from Oprah Winfrey herself in an open letter to the cast, this all-South African creative team and cast have so much to live up to and they aren’t afraid of the challenge.

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I chatted to the humble lead, Didintle Khunou who plays Celie our protagonist, who goes through a 40 year journey of hardship, love, joy, hope and so much more. Walking in to Didi’s dressing room, she is casually scrolling through her phone in comfortable rehearsal clothing. Her calm demeanor already sets the tone for the whole room, and you can feel the intention of the space she has created to prepare herself for this complex character. I’m drawn in by her charisma and sweet charm, and her words are so purposeful and engaging.


Waydene Laing: Didi, first of all congratulations on getting this amazing lead role in The Color Purple. How does it feel to step into the shoes of a character that is so well known and who was played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film?

Didintle Khunou: It’s an honor, because a lot of the experiences that Celie goes through are what a lot of women and also women of colour are still currently experiencing. Maybe not on this scale, because we have more support systems, we have organisations that are there to help us in our turmoil and struggles with domestic violence, with rape, with emotional abuse. But it’s still a story that a lot of women can resonate with and so that comes with the responsibility of doing the best work that I can to authentically tell that story and to be grounded as an actor in the story arch. To never make it about Didi playing Celie, but rather about really just pushing what Alice Walker was intending to communicate originally in the novel.

WL: How do you carry this weight, and how do you make it your own?

DK: There is a bit of pressure, but the pressure doesn’t come from who else has played Celie. In fact I find that I’m more inspired and I feel more grateful for having Cythnia Erivo and Whoopi Goldberg as references. I will bring my own life experiences [in making it my own], my own skill set, my own interpretation and understanding of who Celie is and how I’ve been a Celie in my personal life. And that is what is important as actors to remember is that you are not an empty vessel and you also have a lot of valuable things that you can bring to the table. And you must, there is no point in trying to play a replica of someone else’s performance. What people want to see if your interpretation and your personal truth come through the character. It’s been a great experience because the character has forced me to confront a lot of aspects of myself as an individual and learning to assert myself as a woman in society and learning to express my authentic voice and my personal truth and doing so shamelessly, as she learns to do.

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WL: Do you have any rituals and routines that help you step into the character?

DK: I think it differs from day to day but one of the constant things is starting off with just a meditation session. What that does is it helps me become a little more mindful of how I’m feeling on the day and how that influences the foundational work that I’ve already done with trying to find Celie. Another process that really helps me is getting the body activated, so a warm up but even before a warm up, an activity that opens the body because I find that as an actor my personal weakness is that because I’m so used to silencing my own voice personally, it’s important to find ways to expand and break that guardedness.

WL: How do you then separate yourself from the character at the end of the day so as to not let it emotionally affect you? Celie goes through quite a lot in this 40 year journey and what do you do to feel like Didi again?

DK: I write. I write my own music, or like songs. And I sing. And that just helps me take it all off.

WL: What is it like being under the direction of Janice Honeyman? What’s the most exciting thing that you love about rehearsals?

DK: The lovely thing about being directed by Janice is that she allows you to come with offers and to play around and see what works and what doesn’t. And that’s the aspect that I like about her and she acknowledges your input as an actor.

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WL: What is your favourite musical number in the show, and why?

DK: Our Prayer, which is sung by Nettie and Celie. And this is earlier on in the show, where they’re sort of fantasying of the possibilities of a good life outside of the life that they currently live. And it just establishes the importance of sisterhood, how woman can grow up to be sources of refuge for one another. It lays the foundation of that silver, that invisible thread that we feel is connecting them throughout the play even though they are separated. It’s just a beautiful song. All of them are so amazing!


The Color Purple the musical, presented by Joburg Theatre and Bernard Jay, directed by Janice Honeyman, is on the stage at The Nelson Mandela Theatre from 4 February 2019 until 4 March 2019. Tickets are R240 from or at Joburg Theatre box office.

All images are rehearsals images and are used with permission from BSharp Entertainment. Images by @enroCpics.

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