Culpeper music maker contributes to success of 'The Color Purple' at Riverside

By EMILY JENNINGS Culpeper Star-Exponent

Apr 21, 2019

One of Culpeper’s great musical figures is contributing his talents to a new production of “The Color Purple” at The Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Stafford County.

C. Alexander Smith, music worship leader for Culpeper Baptist Church and director of the Blue Ridge Chorale, plays Grady in a show that features a cast of Broadway-caliber actors.

Recognizing the beauty in life is the critical focus of “The Color Purple,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel adapted for a Warner Brothers film in 1985 and, more recently, a play that was the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Revival.

“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it,” the character Shug Avery says in the play.

As is hinted by that sentence, the show exposes both the oppression that plagues the lives of the African-American women in rural Georgia between 1909 and 1949 and their remarkable ability to transcend it.

“[God is] always making little surprises and springing them on us when we least expect,” Shug adds.

The story follows Celie, a young woman who survives abuse as a child from her father, yet suffers even more egregious abuse at the hands of her husband. Across decades we watch Celie—through relationships with strong and persevering women—find ways not only to cope, but to rise above her trials.

The Riverside show’s spectacular, Grammy-winning score of blues, ragtime, jazz and gospel expresses the full range of emotional dichotomy in the story, arousing compassion and instilling joy.

“The singing will absolutely blow you away,” Alexander Smith said in an interview about the production. “The music will get inside you and just send you into a different space totally. Incredible music.”

Smith, who hold a music education and choral conducting degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, had dreamed of being able to perform in “The Color Purple.”

“I knew the book, of course, and the movie, and then when it originally appeared on Broadway in 2008 I saw it there, with the original cast,” Smith said. “I kept up with the tours of the show and the revised Broadway production—and when I found out Riverside was doing it, I just had to go.”

Smith said the cast prays together before every show.

“We’ve worked together like family from Day One,” he said. “It’s hard to explain how close we’ve become. For us to form such a bond in so short a time is crazy, but so rewarding.”

For those who’ve seen the show, that cohesiveness comes through loud and clear.

“I don’t know when I’ve seen so much talent and unity on the stage at one time,” said Culpeper resident Karen Parkinson, who is on the praise team at Culpeper Baptist and a member of the Blue Ridge Chorale.

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“I can’t say enough about the singing—all the voices were strong,” she said. “The story is heavy, it will make you laugh and make you cry. It’s just an amazing mix, and very well worth the drive to see it.”

Jon Brick, who sings with the Blue Ridge Chorale, said he and his wife saw the play recently, too.

“It was neat to see Alex in the show,” Brick said. “I think he’s one of the shining stars in our community—and he’s a local guy who went to high school here. We should all be proud of him.”

Smith graduated from Culpeper County High School in the 1990s. While at VCU, he sang in the university’s Opera Theater Company and directed the school’s award-winning Gospel Choir. Over the years, he’s occasionally appeared in other Riverside productions, including “Dreamgirls,” “All Shook Up,” “Footloose” and “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

In addition to working as a music conductor and clinician, Smith is a vocal teacher and coach, and sometimes serves as an adjudicator for district choral assessments. He frequently shares his abilities locally through guest conducting invitations and performances.

“He has an amazing ear—he can pick out sounds nobody else does, he knows exactly who it is when just a single person is off key,” Brick said. “But he never makes you feel uncomfortable. He has his way of getting his point across without calling you out.”

Parkinson said Smith is one of the most musically talented individuals she’s ever met.

“The thing about Alex is he can work with any level of ability—from people who have no musical training to those with the highest, classical music education,” she said. “He is capable of bringing out the very best in every singer—and he makes it fun in the process.”

Smith said he’s been amazed and gratified by the number of Culpeper people who have come to see the show since it opened several weeks ago.

“Every single show, there has been someone from Culpeper or someone that I knew,” Smith said. “I always tell people to send me a message when they get there and I’ll come out and see them, and I’ve just been overwhelmed by the amount of support from the Culpeper folks.”

Parkinson said that Smith deserves recognition for all he contributes to Culpeper’s musical community.

“I’ve heard our pastor Dan Carlton say on many occasions that he enjoys watching Alex conduct as much as watching our performance,” Parkinson said.

“He’s so humble, and yet he has such a great personality and is so energetic—his expectations are high, he works us really hard, but he raises the level of quality of any group he works with,” she said. “Somehow, he makes you want to give your best.”

“The Color Purple” opened on March 13, with performances continuing through May 5. For more information, visit 540/317-2986