Riverside stages rebooted musical version of Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple'


Mar 13, 2019

What is Fredericksburg’s favorite color?

Well, through early May, it’s shaping up to be purple.

“The Color Purple” made its regional début yesterday at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts and runs through May 5.

“This has such a rich story with rich characters, addressing the issues that certainly apply to the world we live in today,” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director at Riverside. “And at its core is a woman who stands up for what is right and succeeds in the end. Everyone loves to root for the underdog and there is an undeniable spiritual connection here. It’s quite the combination and quite powerful.”

According to A’Hearn, this is the first time “The Color Purple,” in its famed 2015 revival form, has hit a venue in the state of Virginia. The revival ran on Broadway from 2015 to early 2017 and took home multiple Tony Awards, including the coveted “Best Revival of a Musical” honor in 2016.

The musical is based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and has since taken a handful of forms. Perhaps most renowned, the 1985 Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation was loaded with star-power, including Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Desreta Jackson, among others. The original Broadway musical débuted in 2005 and ran through 2008.

The story itself is one of healing and forgiveness, taking folks on an undeniable emotional roller coaster throughout that touches on everything from love to complete injustice.

The plot zooms in on an uneducated, Georgia-bred African–American girl, Celie, who initially survives abuse from her father only to encounter even more from a beyond-horrible husband. Throughout the decades of her journey, she finds ways to cope and persevere, making meaningful and reflective friendships and never letting go of the hope that, one day, she’ll be reunited with her sister, Nettie.

The Riverside rendition carries quite the musical punch, anchored by a live orchestra and a vocally magnificent cast of 17. Thirteen members of the cast are making their Riverside début, including Kanysha Williams, who stars as Celie.

“It’s an incredible story ... and one of those things you see on TV or read about and feel like you could be a part of one day,” said Williams, a D.C.-area actress who has performed at Arlington’s Signature Theatre and the Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md. “Especially, in the black community, it’s like a rite of passage. It’s important to me, to my culture and to my community. And everything is 100 percent real—I see why people connected with it years ago and they still do today.”

In addition to the Riverside newbies, there are a handful of familiar faces folks will enjoy. Among them is Kadejah Oné, who stars as the strong and defiant Sofia, played by Oprah in the film. Oné has also performed in “Dreamgirls,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “A Rockabilly Christmas” on the Riverside stage. She was also on the national tour of “The Color Purple” for three years following its original Broadway début.

“Years after the original musical, the spirit of this show still rings loud and true,” said Oné. “And, [director Amy Jones] has such a spice for highlighting and accenting every character’s meaning and what makes them special or stick out. With a story like this, it’s important to have a backstory of each character and see what they represent.”

“The Color Purple” marks Jones’ directing début at Riverside. In addition to generally sticking to the Broadway revival version of the show, she has found ways to creatively pay tribute to the original production. According to Jones and keeping with the revival, the story unfolds on a “sparsely set stage where actors move pieces in and out to create different environments.”

A unique touch, Jones has woven in projected images throughout the show, depicting everything from Celie’s external challenges to the spirits that awaken within her.

“[Patrick A’Hearn] and I have been in touch for the better part of four years, trying to make something happen together here at Riverside,” said Jones. “And, I am so happy to be here and that it’s for this show. I was so moved by the book, the movie and the musical. I was excited to get my hands on it. And, I am certain that everyone in Fredericksburg will enjoy it, too.”

Jesse Scott is a freelance writer and Fredericksburg native.