Didintle Khunou is an award-winning screen actor, theatre performer, voice actor and session vocalist. Best known for her portrayal of one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre, Celie, in the Grammy, Tony and Naledi Award-winning musical, The Color Purple directed by award-winning director Janice Honeyman at the Joburg Theatre. Didintle was honoured with the Naledi Award as well as the Broadway World Online Award for her performance as Celie. She played Yerma in an adaptation of Yerma, directed by Rajesh Gopie and was also seen in Joburg Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s epic play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Didintle has had numerous television appearances including Mamello, Single Galz and The Throne. She is currently starring as Janet in the South African tour of The Rocky Horror Show.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I grew up with parents who were avid music lovers. My love for the arts began with my love for music and I just found that I loved expressing myself through song. I used to write these little songs and play games with my little sister while we were playing in the garden and after school, when I would wait to get collected to be taken home, I’d be singing songs and coming up with my own little melodies. That kind of stopped as I grew into my adolescents and then I started drama classes with my English teacher [and] then I realised that I liked singing and acting together and expressing myself in that medium. That’s how it really started. The first time I was ever on stage was in a musical review in Klerksdorp because we didn’t have any art classes or drama classes except for the one that I started with my English teacher, and I realised that I wanted to try this acting thing. There were things I was discovering within myself that were only coming out through music and through performance and acting. My parents were a little apprehensive of me studying drama until they saw me on stage and until they saw how much I enjoyed it. They said, “I’ll give you a chance. If you don’t like it in the first year, you’ll apply for physical science and geography and all of those degrees.” I really enjoyed it at Wits and I finished the degree and then I went on to do Indigo View Actor’s Academy with Steven Feinstein and he just shifted gears that transformed the way that I perceived myself and my relationship with the world around me and that changed so many things in how I approach my craft as an actor. I will always love and thank Steven Feinstein for planting that seed of self-belief after coming from an institution, which to be honest, really broke me down. That’s my journey and what inspired me.
You are a performer who really advocates for continuously working on your craft. Why is that something that’s important to you?
It’s important to constantly hone your craft because after some time, you just get rusty and you get stale. It’s so important to remind yourself of the different things that are required of you. I just feel like you would be doing yourself such a great disservice if you are not working on your instrument and if you are not practising every day. If you are in a show, I still feel that on top of the work that you are doing for the show, there has to be something else that you are doing on the side that is just sharpening you and giving you some form of a competitive edge. That is another reason why I think practising every single day and going to these classes matters. It really matters so that you have a competitive edge, so that you are constantly expanding your skillset, so that you walk into the audition room and you know that you can give so many options and that you are not limited to one thing.
What was it that attracted you to The Rocky Horror Show?
To be very honest, I saw the Rocky Horror auditions and I had done Color Purple and it was kind of the self-critical talk of like, “Just because you’ve done one musical, you are not a trained singer, you are not a trained dancer, don’t think that you can go for all of these musicals.” Those limited beliefs kind of blocking me. So I didn’t audition. I went on to continue other projects. I was also shooting a telenovela at the time so I thought, “I won’t audition for Rocky.” And then after a couple of months, I heard that they were still looking for some of the characters and still auditioning. Someone then referred me to the creative team and one of them said, “You should probably audition for this.” And my agent was like, “Go! Do it! Send them a self-tape.” I sent them a self-tape and they liked it and then I went to do a dance audition, nervous as hell but I did it. I think it was a couple of days later when I found out I got the job which was a similar process to The Color Purple.
How have rehearsals been going?
It’s been going very well. I’m very excited about this show because it’s so energising, it’s so fun, it’s so naughty, it’s so wild, it’s so different from what I’ve done before and I think that is exciting for me. It’s a challenge. All I’m really trained to do is to act in front of a camera and now I’m being challenged to step up to the plate and do more. It’s been fun. Playing Janet, she is just so naïve and wide-eyed and going home with that sweetness and then the arc of her transforming and transitioning into this sexual liberation is so much fun. I haven’t played a character who is that sweet and then suddenly that liberated and free! I am having the time of my life in Cape Town. I’m really enjoying the process and I’m really excited for people to see the show because I feel like I’m working with a cast and an ensemble of actors who just gets each other, we support each other, we have a genuine love for one another and you can feel that chemistry already in the room. Imagine when we are then offering this energy to our audiences? It’s going to be amazeballs.
The production is starting in Cape Town before heading off to Joburg. What are you looking forward to?
What I am really looking forward to is hopefully getting people outside of the normal theatre-going community to come and see the show, people who follow me because of my work as a screen actor who then supported me by coming to watch The Color Purple and now I know that they’ll be coming again to watch Rocky. I am looking forward to now getting people into the culture of coming to the theatre just through my influence and it’s going to be fun. I’m also looking forward to seeing how different people react to the show.
As a performer who has been involved in several long-running shows, how do you sustain your performance during a long run?
I try to make sure I’m off book by the second week. I learn my lines but I never really let go of the script until the show ends because I always find that when you look back at the script, there is always something deeper in the lines that you can dig out. I’m the kind of actor who is always with their script and the script is like the bible to me where I’m just trying to find other ways and other offers and choices to make that I can add on to the structure that we’ve laid out already with the director. Obviously not changing things every night, but my process starts with reading it again even though I know the lines. I’m not really reading the script to remember the lines at this point anymore, I’m rereading the script to dig for more stuff. The digging never ends. And then finding that organically every night. I think that’s the nice thing about theatre that is so different from TV. With TV, it feels like the end product itself is the final performance and it’ll stay that way forever but with theatre, every night you have the opportunity to just dive a little bit more.
I have to ask you about The Color Purple. Celie is the role of a lifetime. What was that audition process like?
I was working on a drama series called Mamello and I heard that The Color Purple was coming to South Africa. Rowan Bakker, who was my teacher for a semester at Wits, was the musical director. I really wanted to audition but I had to be called on set that day. I didn’t go and then I forgot about it and I left it. A couple of months later, I heard that they were still looking for Mister, Celie and Shug Avery. My friend was like, “This is your chance. Go!” I went and I still remember I went to a second-hand shop in Melville and I got this blue and white floral dress that just felt like Celie to me. I went into the audition and I saw all the other ladies were dressed to the tee and I looked so silly in this costume with no makeup. Everyone was wearing makeup and looking great. I looked rather simple and rather dull. I got there and I did it and Bernard [Jay] loved it. I got a callback and another callback and then I got the call that I got the job and I couldn’t believe it because I was really just auditioning just so that they could see me. I was treating that audition as an opportunity to sing the song I’m Here again after a long time of not rehearsing it or singing it when I was preparing for the initial audition which I couldn’t go to. It was the opportunity to just perform it in front of anyone.
That role is so incredibly demanding in so many respects. How did you take that on and make sure that you were able to deliver every night without it compromising your wellbeing?
Before rehearsals began, I had a singing coach, an acting coach, a dialect coach and I was training. I was working with people who could help me find a way to sing the songs the way my voice can. I remember one of my biggest insecurities was the fact that Cynthia Erivo, Fantasia and Whoopi Goldberg had taken on the role, had won awards for it and I was just this plaas girl from Klerksdorp taking this role and thinking, “What could I bring to the table?” My acting coach revealed to me that there are so many similarities between Celie and I. Even in life experiences, there are many similarities. For a long time, I was like a bit of a Celie and then I was inspired to use myself as a resource. It meant then that I had to start digging up old emotional wounds and I was inspired to use them but to not allow myself to be emotionally and mentally overwhelmed by the process and the experience. I had to create a ritual of stepping into character and stepping out. That always involved literally washing my body with water because washing and the showering and the scrubbing became a weird spiritual thing of me kind of detaching myself from the character and from my past. Getting into the character meant I had to go through pictures, I had to go through letters that I would write in my journal. It was a lot. But because I was rooted in a way of coming in and a way of coming out, I managed to always secure and keep my heart protected and clear.
Do you feel as though that process got easier with each returning season that the show had?
Yes, definitely. My confidence grew too. The spirit of Celie began to sit well with me in August and I wasn’t so worried about how I sounded. I became more interested in what I could offer, what my personal interpretation could do to the character, how the spirit of Celie lived through this vessel. That became the focus and the obsession. That then also helped me grow a lot more confident with that.
What is one thing that playing Celie taught you?
It affirmed the fact that I matter. It affirmed me in the sense that I don’t have to feel any shame in the things that have happened in my past. It reminded me to own my magnitude. It reminded me to celebrate my existence. It reminded me to take care of my relationship with my core creator and to make that a priority in my life. And it reminded me to just believe in my capacity as a human being, remember that I have so much to give to the world and to share and that I shouldn’t be afraid of these gifts.
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
Steven Feinstein told me that I shouldn’t do work with the motives of chasing money, I should do work that inspires me and that I feel feeds back into the purpose of expanding the expression of mankind spiritually. That is my purpose that I shared with him and he said that I should look for work and try to do work that aligns with that. Don’t work for the sake of the pay. Sometimes you’ll be chasing a job and you get it but the working environment is highly toxic and you come out of the work regretting that you did it because it’s hurt you mentally and emotionally. Do work that really motivates you to be a better artist. Do stuff that inspires you. That mainly comes with creating your own work. Create your own content. Tell your story because that is what everyone is doing. At what point are you going to be continuously telling other people’s stories and forgetting the beauty and the richness of your own? Share your own life experiences through your art form but don’t just do things because of money. There is value in saying no to a job that you know won’t be great for you because it is highly stressful but the pay is good.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
My sister, Boipelo Khunou. She is a fine artist, painter, sculptor, photographer and a teacher and I just love her fresh interpretation and perception of the world around her. She really creates from her soul and she inspires me to act from my soul. She is so authentic and she gets it from my mom. Our dialect coach Fiona Ramsay inspires me because she has got so much experience under her belt but I’m inspired by how she can transition from screen to stage and do so effortlessly. She has worked for so many years on perfecting her craft and honestly, in my opinion, she is just on the brink of perfection. I admire her so much. I want to learn that versatility. She has so much range. I’m inspired by filmmaker and actress Mmabatho Montsho, director and actress Momo Matsunyane, director and actress Khutjo Green, actress and academic Tshego Khutsoane, actress and poet Lebo Mashile and music conductor Ofentse Pitse.
Special thanks to Dean Roberts.
All photos were taken on November 22nd 2019 at Artscape