Unpacking the different elements of this revival has been a difficult task. However the process of doing so has made me a marvel at its creation that much more. The show has successfully appealed to American audiences and currently enjoys the 2016 Tony Award winning revival title. This is truly a merit to the show’s creative direction, its source material and its cast, which holds talent in abundance. The show is intended for mature audiences and confronts you with adult themes right from the start. However its inspiring message of overcoming adversity is something that people from all walks of life can take away from it.
The Color Purple is based on the book with the same name by Alice Walker. It follows the difficult life of Celie, the protagonist, as she learns of self-love and her own self worth. It is actually an understatement to say that Celie’s life has been difficult. At the age of fourteen, she is raped by her own father, separated from her children, beaten and abused by her oppressive husband and lives uncertain of whether her sister is alive. But despite this, she ascends triumphantly out of her predicament. She is empowered by the strong relationships she develops with the sassy and dominant Sofia but most importantly Shug Avery, the flashy blues singer. Shug not only awakens Celie sexually and emotionally but also spiritually. She helps Celie to reconcile the conflict between the suffering she has experienced and her faith in God. Ultimately she learns that perceiving God is less to do with counting blessings but rather revering his creation, found in simple things such as the natural beauty of the colour purple.
John Doyle’s inventive direction was pleasing to experience. The stage is bare, bar from a collection of chairs hung, scattered on the back walls. This is a brave decision in the New York theatre scene which is packed with outlandish and all-consuming sets, but I believe it pays off. Doyle skilfully relies on the actors to tell the story through minimal use of props. For example when Celie gives birth she pulls out material from under her top, bundles it and carefully cradles the cloth as her child. Or when her husband forbids her from seeing any of her sister’s letters, it is her sister that characterises the letterbox. The accumulative impact is that the story and the ideas it presents takes on a life beyond the realms of the physical stage and within the audience’s imagination. This removes all potential distractions and allows the audience to feel closer to the story as it unfolds.
The score is full of soulful music, soaring ballads and exciting African rhythms. The crowd pleasing songs include ‘Hell No’, ‘Push da Button’, ‘What About Love’, ‘I’m Here’ and the title song, ‘The Color Purple’. It is a personal joy for me to listen to the ensemble numbers; the energy and the beautifully delivered harmonies was reminiscent of a Gospel choir. Their collective voices filled the theatre and inspired the occasional holla and amen from the lively American audience.
I have nothing but praise for Cynthia Erivo, the 29-year old Brit who boldly takes on the part of Celie. It is no surprise after seeing her Tour de Force performance that she won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Most impressive is her ability to convey power and feeling in her voice. When she performed the eleven o’clock number ‘I’m Here’, it was the first time I’ve witnessed an audience erupt into applause midway through a song and even leap to their feet in admiration. It is difficult to single out every performance I enjoyed because the whole cast was outstanding. Shug Avery, the confident and sexy yet vulnerable character is played by Heather Headley with such ease. Another standout performance was by Carrie Compere, the understudy for Sophia. She was brilliantly able to characterise Sofia’s dominance through her powerful voice, stage presence and energy.
It took a fair amount of reflection to understand what fascinated me about this show and appreciate how unique it is. Musicals tend to use the following formula: the main characters are introduced in song; there is a conflict which comes to a climax just before the end of the Act 1; and by the finale there is some degree of resolution which the audience can feel satisfied with before leaving the theatre. When you drill into what the conflict concerns, it is quite often that the love in a heterosexual relationship has been put to the test. In the more exciting ones, the shows either explore a more daring conflict or slightly deviate from this formula. A few of my favourites which successfully do this include Ragtime, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and even the Book of Mormon.
I will now be adding The Color Purple to this list. The conflict in this musical concerns the struggle for women to feel empowered in an environment which sets out to smother their individuality and freedom. But the show doesn’t scream at you to feel horrified at the injustice of it. Rather you are invited to be observers in the different story arcs whereby even the worst of the sufferers are able to overcome the adversity they face. The tact in this approach is that you cannot help but become cheerleaders for the characters and feel inspired by its conclusion. This message is not only intended to resonate with female audiences as I witnessed women and men of different races leave the theatre and equally respond positively to the show.
There are so many satisfying moments to savour. One example is the musical number ‘Hell No!’ which is written as an anthem for suffers of domestic abuse. Sofia teaches Celie not to tolerate the beatings she receives from her husband, and to take control of the situation either by fighting back or leaving. One of my other favourite moments is in the musical number ‘Miss Celie’s Pants’. This song celebrates Celie’s success in setting up and running a business in which she designs and sells her own brand of trousers (or pants as the Americans say). On stage we see her brightly coloured yet stylish trousers modelled by different characters including one of the male leads, Harpo. The show stopping moment is as follows:
Chorus:That man might have done you wrong,Celie:But look . . .I said, look . . .Are you lookin’? . . .Celie looks around at all of them and sings to Shug.Celie:Look who’s wearing the pants now!
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