CURTAIN CALLS: 'The Color Purple' is the new gold

By Maggie Lawrence

Apr 11, 2019

For some reason, stories about rape, incest, degradation, and spousal abuse don’t spring to mind when we think of plots for uplifting musicals. Nevertheless, such is the searing, epistolary story that forms the basis for “The Color Purple”, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1983 which was quickly followed by a film in 1985. A musical version had to happen.

That Broadway hit, which ran from ’05 to ’08, garnered eleven Tony nominations and a Tony-winning revival that ran from late 2015 to 2017. Dramatically speaking, “…Purple” is gold.

That musical revival in all its scorching, heart-breaking glory awaits patrons at the Riverside Center through May 5. If you pick and choose which shows to see, see this one. If you’ve never been, but always meant to go, go now.

Under the direction of Amy Jones and the musical direction of Garrett Jones, “The Color Purple” transports us to 1930s Georgia and the catastrophes and triumphs of Celie’s life. An inspired cast and top-drawer technical support equal an unforgettable experience.

Kanysha Williams takes the central role of Celie and breathes into it an intensely three-dimensional life. Beginning with two babies born of a father’s rape and then given away, transferred to a tyrannical abuser for a husband, surviving and persisting through the twenty-plus years of separation from her beloved sister – this is a Celie we believe in. A damaged child, she clings to the only love she’s ever known with sister Nettie (Ashanti Branch) in forgetful play, singing “Huckleberry Pie” and “Somebody Gonna Love you.”

The full force of the downward spiral that awaits her comes out in “Big Dog”, a powerful ensemble piece with Mister (Wendell Jordan) and the Men. But not every black woman in Depression-era Georgia was a born victim. Sofia (Kadejah One) is going to marry the abusive Pa’s (Montel Butler) son, Harpo (Carl Williams), and if Pa doesn’t like it, that’s too bad. Ms. One belted the rafters loose in Riverside’s “Dream Girls” and she’s doing it again in her signature song “Hell, No!”

And she’s not the only one who can knock the men off their balance. Shug Avery (Nia Savoy) creates a sensation even before she arrives when Mister, Celie, and the Company sing “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town.” Indeed she does – bejeweled and bewitching and fully assuming the nervous unease of the men and even the anxious, fascinated servitude of Celie.

But there’s much more to Shug, and Ms. Savoy puts it across in her kindness to Celie when she sings “Too Beautiful for Words.” The other side, of course, is her star moment in Harpo’s Juke Joint when she executes the night’s bawdiest song, the fabulously lewd “Push Da Button.”

We could not bear a story that was all sorrow, leaving Celie hopeless, and Act II takes us to “African Homeland” with the company to follow the fortunes of a now grown Nettie and the missionary couple who finished raising her. The letter-writing device that Ms. Walker used in the original story is employed here with Nettie and Celie singing their letters to one another from worlds away.

Dynamic characters are always more interesting than static ones, and several major players experience the transitions life capriciously metes out whether we like it or not.

            Sofia’s showdown with local officialdom crushes the chutzpah and sass that had carried her so far before; nevertheless, that steel-bladed character regroups and finally reasserts itself.  Celie herself, survivor of unimaginable loss and pain, steps away at last from that life and finds a new definition of herself as a designer and maker of pants. “Miss Celie’s Pants” sung by Celie and the Women is a joyful celebration of her new life. And Mister undergoes at least as profound a change as Celie in his recognition of the man he has been, the evil he has committed, and the starkness of his need for forgiveness.

Frank Foster’s scene design has a sophisticated and versatile simplicity using layers of slats and area staging which, depending upon the scene, suggest anything from a shanty to a juke joint to an African veranda. Mike Jarett’s lighting melded with Patrick Lord’s gorgeously evocative projection designs fill in the precise moods with magical subtlety. Costumes by Kyna Chilcot are colorfully on point, defining the character in the very moment.

The soul of effective art is truth, and this production radiates truth: The artists on stage who embrace these characters; the director who guided them into the heart of every conflict; the music that evokes the very spirit of hope, loss, and love; and the designers who support them all with a unified and seamless vision.

 

WANT TO GO?

What:  “The Color Purple”

Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.

Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com

Playing through May 5