Dallas — The film The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, has been a mainstay in my life since an early age. Not only did it star burgeoning actors Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Margaret Avery but it defined the first 21 years of my life. The ending redemption scene between Shug Avery and her father still drops a lump in my throat. My college days at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College was riddled with random quotes from the classic movie. To be black, a child of the ’80s and not have seen The Color Purple was a cardinal sin in my eyes.
When it was announced that the title was headed to Broadway, there was a collective heart-racing; it was finally time that this story was shared in a different storytelling form: theater. The original 2005 Broadway production held closer to the story line of the book than Steven Spielberg’s cinematic version. From the lush overture (music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray; with a book by Marsha Norman) to the beautiful set, gorgeous costumes and show-stopping vocals, this theatrical production created a mark on the theater canon that was undeniable. The star power that permeated the Broadway stage was like a who’s who of black entertainment: LaChanze, Lou Meyer, Fantasia, Chaka Khan, Bebe Winans, and Todrick Hall.
Ten years and three national tours later, The Color Purple was revived on Broadway. This production, a transfer from the first international staging in London, was not the production we’d experienced a decade prior. Director and scenic designer John Doyle stripped away the spectacle — the big shiny set — and focused directly on the story. This forced us to sit with the pain, fortitude and resilience displayed from each of Walker’s myriad of characters. Simple nuances, such as yards of Kente cloth creating the African sky and then becoming a statuesque robe, or a letter in an extended hand serving as a mailbox, painted a modest yet effective backdrop, winning Cynthia Erivo a Tony Award for her portrayal of Celie. In the simplicity of this set, wood chairs suspended on the back wall and wooden platforms accent Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes.
The national tour of the revival made another stop in Dallas this week at the Winspear Opera House, in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series. This non-Equity tour of a show that was stripped down for Broadway and stripped even more bare for a second tour felt swallowed in the enormity of the venue. What did shine through from the stage was the soaring vocals (music director Jonathan Gorst) and dedicated acting from this ensemble cast.
Mariah Lyttle’s Celie starts timid and subservient to the men in her life that have used her as a doormat, among other things. The only solace she receives is taking care of her younger sister Nettie (Milika Cherée). When Nettie is torn away, Celie find comfort and strength through the women she encounters in her life. Sophia (Chédra Arielle) exemplifies what it means to own your voice and demand your place in the world at all costs. Sandie Lee as Shug Avery guides Celie on a journey of self-love, self-worth and self-respect. It’s worth noting that Arielle’s bluesy “Push Da Button” had even the modest of patrons gyrating in their seat.
The men in Celie’s life seem to orbit in and out, affecting her but never breaking her spirit. Her stepfather’s (Mon’Quez Deon Pippins) incessant rape, abuse and disdain for her pummeled her self-esteem into the floor. Mister (Andrew Malone) is the meanest, cruelest husband a woman could ever encounter. Malone’s Mister makes us hate him in Act One and love him in Act Two. His cathartic, almost operatic ballad “Celie’s Curse” is as healing as it is haunting.
The unsung heroes of this production are Elizabeth Adabale, Parris Lewis and Shelby A. Sykes, the three church ladies who create a pseudo Greek chorus. Their comedic timing, tight harmonies and authentic storytelling served to push the plot forward with the ease of a Georgia spring.
Celie’s pivotal change happens with the simplicity of two words, “I’m Here.” She’d attempted for years to disappear or blend into the background but each person she encountered pushed her one step closer to owning her stake in the world. These two words coupled with an exquisitely told story, remind us to stop and enjoy the beautiful colors we are given each day.
» Check out Jiles R. King, Jr.'s interview with Color Purple star Andrew Malone at the link below.