A limited two-week run of The Color Purple recently closed at the famed Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and it was a spectacle to behold. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker (that was later adapted into a landmark movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Steven Spielberg), the show follows the life of main character Celie and the lives of her family and friends in the 1930’s. The critique of the low status of Black Americans, and Black women in particular, in a society that is both racist and sexist is a major theme throughout. Yet the empowering messages of radical self-love and acceptance, faith and hope in a time of abuse and oppression, and the importance of woman empowerment feel even more current post-#MeToo. Already a brilliantly captivating work in print and on film, the musical manages to somehow be lighter in tone than both while not undermining the gravity of much of the subject matter. Black joy is conveyed the bright oranges, reds and greens of an account of Africa; the joyous yellow of a brand new pair of pants; and, of course, the color purple, which is deemed the color that “…pisses God off if you don’t stop to enjoy it.”
Adrianna Hicks is luminous as Celie. Celie’s growth and evolution are the backbone upon which the entire story rests, and Hicks plays her various stages with strength and aplomb. Her voice is powerful and courageous, giving uplifting energy to Celie’s grace throughout circumstances that would break many. While the costumes and set design were minimal, spaces and places were evoked by the actions of the actors, and also by a curious assortment of chairs that were continually picked up and moved around. Clocking in at two hours and 35 minutes from start to finish including intermission, it still feels fast paced, especially considering that it is a true musical, with very little spoken dialogue. The voices of the all-Black cast are often used for a traditional call and response style of singing, which makes for an even more evocative sense of time and place. It is rest-assuredly a Broadway revival, made up of enormously talented young professionals whose singing and acting chops burst across the stage such that even the bit parts are memorable, from a somewhat dimwitted prizefighter boxer boyfriend to a mean-as-a-rattlesnake father-in-law.
Opening with the birth of her second child despite the fact that she is still a young teenager, Act 1 covers the tumultuous home life of Celie with her father and sister, Nettie, and later, with her husband, Mister. Nettie and Celie share a close bond, despite the fact that Nettie is viewed as smart and beautiful while Celie is treated as the pack mule of the family, ordered to cook and clean the house. Neighbors and other churchgoers wonder who the father of Celie’s baby is, widely and salaciously speculating, and gossip is another running theme throughout the show: three gossipmongers appear repeatedly, like the muses of the Greek chorus, with their chatter about the town goings-on introducing characters, bookending situations, and providing insight. Immediately after the birth, Celie’s father orders her to give up the child so as not to prevent her from working. It is an intimate cruelty – particularly for this sect of Black Americans, who are only one generation removed from slavery – made even more sorrowfully potent moment at a time where children ripped from their parents is headline news.
When Mister (Gavin Gregory), a widower from town with several children, appears at their home with the intentions of marrying Nettie, their father offers up Celie instead and Celie is shuttled off to his home where she is immediately put to work caring for his unruly children along with cooking and cleaning once more. The nature of a Black woman’s work is a running thread throughout the show, as we witness the extensive domestic work Celie is required to do, and we are later introduced to women in various professions, from waitressing to entertainment to entrepreneurs. Despite the fact that Celie is repeatedly insulted and demeaned, her work ethic proves invaluable to those around her; conversely, her sister Nettie is complimented on her intelligence and beauty yet also derided for her ambitions of wanting to become a schoolteacher and her refusal to marry or have children. In a boisterous solo number, Nettie, played by the effervescent N’jameh Camara, proclaims that she is “no ones mother.” By the end of the show, Celie will have opened her own business selling pants, and doing work for herself and herself alone is a poignant symbol of independence and freedom.
The various Black women that Celie comes across after marrying have an indelible effect on her. The first to impact her is the strong willed and outspoken Sofia – depicted as warm yet unstoppable by Carrie Compere – who is the wife of Mister’s oldest son, Harpo. Growing up the only girl in a family of boys, Sofia refuses to accept physical or emotional abuse and fights back against anyone who attempts to disrespect or belittle her, including Harpo and Mister. This is a revelation to Celie, who had previously only been beaten into submission by her father and then her husband. She begins to rebel in little ways, doing everything from talking back to spitting in a glass of water unbeknownst to the drinker, and Celie’s acts of rebellion eventually grow into a dramatic shift in her personality as she becomes more sure of herself and no longer submits.
Then there is the unapologetically sexual Shug Avery, a smoldering free spirit portrayed by Carla R. Stewart, who is Mister’s first love. Arriving at the doorstep deathly ill one night, Shug allows Celie to nurse her back to health, and the two become close friends, eventually falling in love. An unabashed juke joint singer with a penchant for red-beaded flapper attire and a love of men and women, Shug exemplifies freedom and beauty to Celie and encourages her to look for the beauty inside of herself. Shug is always the talk of the town for her scandalous ways, despite the fact that the women predominantly envy and look up to her (an amazing musical number depicts the other women attempting to learn Shug’s overtly sexual dance moves), and she is the first person since Nettie that Celie loves and is vulnerable with. Shug teaches Celie that sex and love can go hand in hand, and is instrumental in Celie later discovering the whereabouts of her sister and two missing children.
In Act 2, armed with the knowledge that her sister and children are alive despite having been separated from them, Celie leaves Mister. She and Shug Avery live together briefly as lovers, yet Shug later has an affair with a young band member and leaves. This forces Celie to reconcile loving herself and caring for herself for the first time, rather than loving and caring solely for others. Celie fully embraces her newfound self-love, independence, and resilience, excelling as a business owner with her storefront selling pants. There is a truly resplendent number during which all of the women of the town sing about Celie’s pants, which represent a physical embodiment of freedom for all of the women who had previously only been seen in dresses and skirts.
We watch the characters change, then change and change again; age is fluid and relationships are interchangeable. Celie, Shug, and Sofia are part of an amorphous group of lovers and friends, which also grows to include Squeak, a young waitress who begins dating Harpo while he and Sofia are separated. She’s bubbly and charismatic, a Betty Boop-esque charmer who adds another layer to the rich tapestry of strong female personalities. The women are all different from Celie, and different from each other. Despite the historical time period, they create a slice of life that is fresh and contemporary, wherein men have supporting roles but aren’t star players. It’s a story of change, faith, hope, and above all else, love.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.