Purple means royalty. But in many cultures it also triggers thoughts of spirituality, recovery and resurrection. In African Ashanti culture, it’s associated with Mother Earth and healing. It can suggest wealth, but also imply oppression. Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, explained her use of the title. “I … noticed in nature purple is everywhere …. And in that sense, it’s like the people in the novel. You think they are unusual … but … all of the trials and tribulations of Celie are happening to people all over the planet right now.” The Color Purple is going through a reawakening. Given its message, that’s good when there’s such upheaval in the streets and women and minorities are still violently oppressed. The message of Purple struck Oprah Winfrey so deeply she became a public promoter of the story, produced a 2005 Broadway musical, as well as its return to Broadway later this year. She was lauded for her role as Sofia in Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 movie. So it’s natural when someone mentions The Color Purple, Oprah springs to mind.
The Color Purple – The Musical opened its regional premier at Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre in Sundance Square and I was privileged to see this outstanding production. If you’re longing for a theater experience with a fantastic cast, music that drives you to tears and makes you jump for joy, and a production that grabs you at the opening and sends you out the door shaking, singing and loving life, you must see Jubilee’s production.
Alice Walker’s 1982 story is, at its core, a story of struggle and redemption in post-slavery Georgia. Marsha Norman’s book for the musical captures and distills the themes in Walker’s novel and shows these characters going through expansive transformations. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray convey emotional struggles that expose the underbelly of life in the Deep South and still celebrates the triumph of life.
Akiń Babatundé directed this production with a flair for Broadway, with spectacularly visual stage images in an intimate theater where sounds and images fill the senses. It seemed every bit as powerful as the big box theater, yet close enough to connect intimately with the actors.
Music soars in this show and Geno Young, Musical Director, took these talented singers and turned them into a powerful musical ensemble that explored the songs and deeply moving messages. Songs run the gamut of quiet, soulful ballads to foot-stomping rafter-raising full-ensemble, anthems. And then Young went upstairs and played them on his keyboard. It sounded like a band and his backing for these singers enabled them to soar. Ballsy. Powerful. Jazzy. And spiritual. Every actor sang with pure tonality and Bessie Smith type voices. Solos filled the space with soul and spirit. When two or three sang together, they balanced perfectly. But when the ensemble joined in, big lush harmonies penetrated you like a wave flowing in from the ocean.
Actors moved as they sang, both in purposeful stage movements and in dances from the early 1900s, as well as an African tribal dance. Shaté Edwards choreographed the show while director Babatundé got credit for musical staging. I’m not sure where the separation was, but the collaboration was magical. There were nineteen actors singing and dancing and moving and they always committed to their moves within the subtext of their character, creating moving stage pictures that made the scenes alive and interesting.
The stage seemed simple at first. Designed by Donna Marquet, a white painted stage floor lay in front of a large white painted backdrop, with something like a Jackson Pollack painting. Several low white platforms stacked across the floor in front of the backdrop and a couple of tall flat towers stood to either side of the stage. In time, though, platforms moved and towers became little hidden enclosures that turned and traveled across the floor. This simple setting was complex enough to be Celie’s childhood house, Mister’s farm, an African village, Harpo’s juke joint, a church, and even a town jail.
This setting was lit by Nikki Deshea Smith with subtle hues that brightened the stage and actors, but also changed color on those white surfaces. The backdrop, for instance, shifted to a light violet or a hint of mauve at times, but later shifted to a golden yellow, creating a sunny African countryside.
David Lanza designed sound with pre-show music like Willie Mae Ford Smith and St Louis Blues to set the time period. There were a few sound-effects. But what was excellent was the perfect balance between singers and music. Every word was easily understood whether in solo or as an ensemble. The tonal qualities and emotional messages were clear, without losing the power of Geno Young’s backing music.
Shows costumed by Barbara O’Donoghue are generally distinctive, unique and well-suited to every story. But this time she was inspired. A large ensemble played numerous parts and had to appear different, if only for a moment. At times they dressed as an ensemble and wore the same pieces. The overall theme was white with tans and light brown accents or counter-colors. Celie wore a poor-looking blue print dress. There was an African tribe with colorful prints and grass-tasseled pieces. Head dress adorned most actors and these ran the gamut from simple men’s panama or fedora-like hats to fancy women’s ‘crowns.’ I won’t even describe Miss Celie’s pants, which were fun and colorful and set the tone for one of the best songs in Celie’s transformation. Madalyn Russell added to this visual smorgasbord distinct and representative hairstyles and makeup that created an overall ensemble look while allowing individual characters to be distinct, changing with the passage of time and with the transformations of characters. Celie’s hair, for instance, started as short and scraggly with corn-roll pig tails, but changed over time to more mature styles until we saw her in a positively business-like cut.
The Color Purple centers on the story of Celie, a young teenage girl who’s raped and abused by her step-father and then her husband after being sold like cattle. Mister publicly abuses her as a wife and drives her younger sister away. As Celie, Ebony Marshall Oliver portrayed the deep despair of an abused child and wife as well as the self-loathing which such abuse creates. But she also showed a survival spirit and transcendence to a woman of forgiveness and humanity. In a moment of deep pain, she at once showed abject joy of birthing a baby, and then total loss as Celie’s step-father takes it away. We see Celie reacting to accusations of being ugly by Pa and Mister as the skilled actress took those words and turned them into a look of self-hate. In those moments, probably more devastating than any physical abuse, Marshall Oliver showed what it looks like to experience what John Bradshaw called “soul murder.” It causes Celie to accept the abuse, as if she deserves it.
But Marshall Oliver was also an extraordinary singer. Celie sings in twenty of the twenty-nine songs and Marshall Oliver uses her vocal strength, finesse and skills to reach deep into her emotions to find Celie’s sub-text, all the while filling the theater with pure and luscious melodies. Her duets with JuNene K as Shug Avery showed the emotional growth Celie goes through as she learns from her mentor. “What About Love” is a duet that cements Celie’s and Shug’s relationship, a moment of discovery of Celie’s sexuality, and allows Celie to explore feelings of love with a woman. But the song that nails Celie’s transformation, the song that brings an audience to its feet, is her stunning solo, “I’m Here.” Marshall Oliver delivered it with power, purity, resolve, and emotional courage.
Celie encounters other women along her path who teach her lessons. The first is her own sister.
Kristen Bond played Celie’s younger, more intelligent sister, who is blessed with ambition and a desire to learn and teach. Bond did a nice job of showing us a giddy pre-teen girl innocently adoring Celie with child-like sisterly qualities. When Celie is sold, Nettie becomes Pa’s new target, but runs away. We heard in Bond’s voice a resolve to escape, punctuated by desperation, followed by fear of Mister’s violence. Bond responds to that in “Lilly of the Field” as she’s banished. Nettie reappears in “African Homeland,” as Bond narrated Nettie’s letter to Celie while the ensemble acted out life in the village. Bond showed Nettie’s maturity, teaching Celie that survival is possible.
Sofia comes from a home like Celie’s, but she learns to protect herself from abuse. She entices Harpo, Mister’s son, with her ballsy strength and open sexuality. Chimberly Carter Byrom makes Sofia strong, a bit brash, confident and demanding, the type of woman everyone, man or woman, fears a little. Byrom makes her loud, pointing fingers at the men, demanding to be respected. But Sofia eventually encounters abuse herself, by the white Mayor and his wife. In jail, for defying the Mayor, Byrom looked whipped, mentally and emotionally beaten, because Sofia’s sentence is to be a maid to the Mayor’s wife. The thing Sofia feared most, being enslaved, happens in spite of her self-protections. And Byrom’s whole body showed the shame from that failure.
Shug Avery is Celie’s mentor. A talented performer, she’s idolized by women and loved by men. JuNene K gave us a full experience of Shug’s stardom and open sexuality with a palpable sensuality that permeated Shug’s speech, songs, movements, and interactions. In a scene in the bathtub, as she’s being healed and washed by Celie, we see her connect with Celie very deeply. Celie experiences her first feelings of love through this and JuNene’s demeanor revealed how Shug loves this attention. Shug is always gentle and understanding with the hurting Celie and JuNene played this in a way that we just knew Celie would be okay with Shug. But Shug has a personal demon as well, sexual addiction. And in JuNene’s portrayal showed the pain self-abuse causes.
Shug sings eight of the songs, including duets with Celie, such as “Dear God,” “What About Love?” and “The Color Purple.” Their duets were sweet, with lovely harmonies, and revealed the messages of love and strength Shug conveys to Celie as her mentor. However, her signature song and JuNene’s spotlight stage moment, among several, was her haunting and touching solo, “Too Beautiful for Words.” This is the moment Celie looks at herself in truth. JuNene’s performance took our breath away. So powerful! It makes me tear up just remembering it.
The last important women teachers for Celie is a group who opened the show, joined the ensemble on most songs, and hovered around the action to comment on Celie’s plight. Like a Greek Chorus, they were Jarene, played by Crystal Williams, Darlene, played by Deon Q. Sanders, and Doris, played by Liz Francisco. These quintessential older church ladies with booming voices and bigger-than-life presence were not only the strongest singing voices, but also were comic relief for the story, as most of their comments brought howls of laughter. With four songs just for the group, they introduced or provided character information, such as “That Fine Mister” as Mister appears on the scene, and “A Tree Named Sofia” when we see Sofia the first time. But I think their overture moment was when they introduced Shug Avery with “All We’ve Got to Say,” a mixture of adoration and scorn. They were Odetta Holmes, Rosetta Tharpe, and Bessie Smith combined and when they sang you wanted to stand up and yell, “Amen!”
Pa, step-father of Celie and Nettie, was played by a generally scowling Selmore Haines III. He also played Old Mister, the young Mister’s elderly father. As Pa he was the instigator of troubles for Celie and Nettie. Pa fathers two children with Celie and presumably tries the same with Nettie. Haines had to maintain this ever-present forceful hatred for women and children, with no apparent back-story for why. He represented incest and family abuse. And while the audience had to hate Pa for despicable actions, Haines had to find something in this character to appreciate. This may be the hardest part of acting and I applaud him for letting us see this. As Old Mister, he played a very different role. Mister’s father, a former slave who got a plot of land to farm in post-war Georgia, sees his son’s treatment of everyone on the farm, like the hated slave owners he probably had to endure, and he is ashamed. Haines two distinctly different characters made us see the origin of Celie’s journey and connected us to the distant past.
Mister is the real villain of this story. He, like Pa, is forever angry, hateful of men and women alike, although Shug Avery is the woman he wants. Calvin Scott Roberts played Mister with a very strong subtext that allowed him to commit fully tot his role. We saw Mister’s bad attitude as he arrives to buy a bride from Pa. He wants young Nettie. He gets Celie, but reinforces Pa’s accusation that she is ugly. Roberts’ gives us this gift, this violence and hate-filled view of the world, by playing it forcefully and believably. This story required a Satan-like character. Unlike Pa, though, he finds transformation. Robert’s beautiful “Mister’s Song” in the end reveals the true character of Mister’s heart. In his strong baritone voice, he asks, Tell me how a man do good, when all he knows is bad?” It was a stunning turnaround and a song that connected deeply with the audience.
Harpo is Mister’s son who falls in love with the assertive Sofia and gives into her whims, to his father’s disgust. Gabriel Lawson played Harpo through many emotional changes, such as a puppy-love when Harpo first meets Sofia, a confused rope tugged between his father and Sofia, and as a loving husband after reconnecting with her. Lawson’s duet with Byrom in "Any Little Thing" was a sexy, jazzy romp that shows their real love. Their voices blended perfectly and their chemistry sizzled.
Finally, there were other actors who played multiple roles and filled the ensemble with serious solo talent in acting, dancing and singing. I don’t think I heard an ensemble player or minor character who could not lead a show themselves. Some had short solo parts and all were tonally precise and just as strong vocally as the leads. Each member of this cast, regardless of their part in a particular song, was totally committed to their character’s subtext. It didn’t matter which actor you looked at during a song, you felt that character’s belief in the lyrics and music. Of particular note was Squeek, played by Ja’Shaelyn Carmichael, with her very high irritating, squeaky voice as she becomes a love interest for Harpo, and Babakayode Ipaye, who preaches a sermon and commands his African tribe, both with a booming voice that rose above the music and the chatter on stage. I loved this ensemble.
The Color Purple – The Musical depicts the results of domestic abuse and incest, racial as well as sexual prejudice, and constant implied violence, but it takes these hard truths of life in early 20th Century life and turns them into a stunningly beautiful view of how people survive the atrocities and become strong and healthy. Akiń Babatundé, writes, “I am particularly struck by the symbolic meaning of the title…. I wanted to examine aspects of how the color purple is described … as the experiences to which Celie was never blind to … experiences that led to her coronation and the crowning glory of love and the awareness of self-acceptance.” That vision by the director shone through a total commitment by actors and designers as they told a story that applies to us all.
If you want to see Broadway-quality musical theater without leaving Texas, get over to Sundance this month.
THE COLOR PURPLE – The Musical
506 Main Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through August 23rd
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm. Saturday-Sunday Matinee at 3:00 pm.
Tickets for Thursday evening and Saturday & Sunday Matinees are $25.00.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $30.00.
This production contains strong language and adult situations and is recommended for audiences over 14 years of age.
For information and tickets, visit www.jubileetheatre.org or call 817-338-4204.