Most literary works never reach a wide audience, but American author Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple has managed to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and consistently ranks among the most reread books in the country, been adapted into an Oscar nominated movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985, and now lavishly transposed into a successful $10 million dollar Broadway musical.
The show’s initial buzz may have been the drawing power of Oprah Winfrey, who starred in Spielberg’s film version and is now a producer of the theatrical version, but it is clearly the timeless story passionately sung and acted that has earned audience’s approval and given the show 11 Tony nominations for best musical and best performance by a leading actress, among others.
Spanning over 40 years from 1909 to 1949, this epic of a story is all about the struggles of a rural Georgia girl named Celie. The show opens on her at the age of 14, pregnant for the second time by way of her father, playing a clapping game with her sister Nettie. After giving birth again, her father takes it away to get rid of it “same as the last one.”
When a local farmer named Mister takes an interest in her sister Nettie, her father offers Celie to him instead. Despite calling her “the ugly one,” Mister takes her home and put her to hard work caring for his unruly kids. Nettie eventually comes to visit, but after rejecting some advances by Mister, he throws her off his property and vows that the two sisters will never see each other again. Nettie promises to write, though Celie never receives a letter.
In 1919, Mister’s son Harpo marries a woman named Sofia. This is the first of two strong-willed women in her life. Celie watches Sofia stand up to Mister and becomes entranced by her willpower. Still, after years of conditioning, when Harpo asks Celie how he can get Sofia to obey like she does to Mister, Celie advises him to “beat her.” When he tries, Sofia beats him and leaves.
In 1922, with Sofia gone, Harpo turns his home into a juke joint. He is able to lure his father’s former girlfriend Shug Avery to be the headliner. Staying at their home, Shug helps Celie find inner beauty through her strength of character. Together they discover hidden letters written by Nettie and discover some surprising revelations about Celie’s children.
In 1937, while at an Easter gathering, Shug tells a bitter Celie to find simple joy in everyday life around her. This is where the story’s title derives from, when Shug tells Celie, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” They have a discussion that starts rekindling Celie’s faith despite her years of abuse. For the first time, Celie stands up to Mister and tells him she is leaving him for good. The rest of the story will be revealed when you attend the show, but know that in the end, Celie has found her own voice.
The film version faced criticism for portraying black men one-dimensionally as only abusive, uncaring and disloyal. The musical is closer to the novel in showing the men in their full dimension. Marsha Norman, who wrote the musical’s libretto, says the men are depicted “in their strength and their glory, as well as in their oppression and anger.” The story resonates with a wide audience beyond just African-Americans because it hits at central themes that are cross-racial like faith, endurance, redemption, and sisterhood. Even though the story is dark, it is also uplifting.
It took producer Scott Sanders eight years to bring this musical to reality. He took a calculated chance by hiring pop songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, whose eclectic score is their first theater work. The show’s witty lyrics and music is a combination of blues, gospel, spiritual, and jazz. Lots of songs offer humor such as “Shug Avery’s Coming to Town” that show the town men admiring and their ladies disapproving, “Hell No” is a humorous anthem of independence by Sophia, and some church ladies sing a gossipy tune throughout. “Push Da Button” has a sensual Shug driving Harpo’s club absolutely wild. A sequence in Africa has some rhythmic tribal variations. Though lacking some memorably catchy songs, the music is upbeat, joyful and had the audience clapping along.
The film version contained one tour de force performance after another with Whoopi Goldberg in the leading role of Celie and the film debut of Oprah as her daughter-in-law Sofia. This broadway musical features amazing performances too. Angela Robinson has such sexy presence in the role of Shug. Rufus Bonds in the role of Mister is capable of appearing both vicious to Celie, yet helpless before Shug. Felicia P. Fields was a joy to watch as she recreated her Broadway role as the feisty and uproariously funny Sohpia. The stand-out of course is Jeannette Bayardelle recreating her Broadway role of Celie. Her facial expressions make us believe she begins this journey as an innocent 14 year old girl and is able to endure her way though pain, bitterness, first love, and more to find her true inner power as a woman. All the singers sounded great and a male dance ensemble were entertaining to watch.
Walker’s novel is told through Celie’s hand-written letters to God. Upon entering the theater, the stage is hidden by a giant letter that depicts the first words of the novel, “Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” This musical invites all of us to observe what is happening to Celie and find hope in how her strength through life’s hardships can be an encouragement to all of us, especially to today’s theater patrons possibly facing tough times in their own lives. The Color Purple stands out in a musical field and as Shug might say, God would be pissed if you failed to stop and notice it.
The Color Purple is performing November 18-30 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $28.50 – $88.50.