Call him a master of designing minimalist theatre. John Doyle’s places “The Color Purple” straight into the contemporary with the touring production of the hit Broadway musical. The musical is based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and subsequently on the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name. “The Color Purple” is an important show for America in 2018. It’s powerful to see a musical that has 11 black women on stage in a cast that’s entirely black. It’s vital to have conversations centered around the issues presented in the musical. The Broadway musical has it’s challenges – it’s hard to make an empowering, light musical off of a story that is ultimately about pain. But it’s also about resilience and the show captures this energy.
Sisters Celie (Adrianna Hicks) and Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) live in rural Georgia in 1909. Fourteen-year-old Celie gives birth at the start of the show to a baby who’s the product of rape. Celie believes her father is the father of her own child, and the baby is soon taken from her. Celie is quickly given off to a man we come to know as Mister. Mister is supposed to be Celie’s husband but the role he actually embodies is something more of a predator. Celie endures hard labor for Mister at the crack of his whip and she is sexually abused by him. As her sister Nettie escapes, Celie becomes further entrenched in an abusive, sexually exploitive relationship.
Celie finds hope and an unexpected partner in Mister’s mistress Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart). Through Shug, Celie finds kindness from someone who is seen as a pariah. As the years turn to decades, Celie endures abuse, beatings and horrible acts of cruelty. The final act is a powerful statement of personhood with Celie declaring “I’m here”.
There are a number of uncomfortable moments in “The Color Purple” that either goes straight over the audience’s head or are just too difficult to process. The musical received an unusual number of laughs for a show that unpacks themes of rape, abuse of power, and sexual autonomy. I didn’t find the show very funny, but strangely, many in the audience did. At times audience members next to me wondered if they were missing something. I have to wonder if audiences in general are just too ashamed to explore the pathos of abuse.
Doyle’s production certainly doesn’t lend to many laughs. The show’s set is stripped down to three long strips of wood with chairs strewn across. The set alludes to a broken or crumbling home and asks us to listen to the dialogue rather than rely on visuals. But maybe the dialogue requires some more depth – for a show that has such heavy consequences for it’s characters, there is little time spent on their inner journeys. Instead, rousing gospel-tinged songs are infused in the story. There are many songs that feel extremely contemporary even, like “Push Da Button”. Hicks and Camara are both given ample opportunities to shine through the music.
Despite it’s flaws, “The Color Purple” punches hard in its final moments. The crowd pleasing finale is contagiously enjoyable and uplifting. There is pain for sure in “The Color Purple” but there is also hope and empowerment. I think Memphis felt that Tuesday night.
“The Color Purple” runs through February 18 and tickets are limited. You can purchase them here.
Also, if you’re in Memphis, be sure to join the Orpheum February 26 as they reveal their Broadway lineup for the 2018-2019 season! I’ve been told some amazing shows will be joining Hamilton. It’s free and begins at 6 pm!