We gave it an A
Purple, the color purple, represents what’s beautiful in the world, the good things in creation. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” writes Alice Walker in The Color Purple, her great, brutal novel of racism and sexism. In the script for its somewhat less brutal musical adaptation, the playwright Marsha Norman changed the line — “I think it piss God off if anybody even walk by the color purple in a field and not notice it” — but the point is the same: Amid horror, there is beauty.
In the British director John Doyle’s emotionally rich and visually striking new production of The Color Purple, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, there is an elegant staging and three gorgeous star performances. But the most inescapable thing about the musical is just how much horror is packed into its leading characters’ lives — and, eventually, just how much beauty.
But first, those performances.
Jennifer Hudson makes her Broadway debut here, and it only reconfirms that she’s a star. She plays Shug Avery, a worldly nightclub singer with a flapper finger wave and heart of a gold, and her appearance gives the story its first note of warmth. Danielle Brooks — Taystee from Orange Is the New Black — is Sofia, the rare woman in this world willing to stand up to her husband, even dominate him. She’s also in her first Broadway role, and she turns out to be a gifted stage actress. She’s funny, sensitive, and compulsively charismatic.
But they’re both supporting players. The leading lady is Cynthia Erivo, the British actress who originated the role in London, also in her Broadway debut. She plays Celie, who is diminished and defeated through much of the story but finally finds her strength. Erivo’s portrayal of that transformation is remarkable. A quiet, subdued performance slowly gathers conviction, and when finally Celie asserts herself with her climatic anthem of self-possession, “I’m Here,” its power is astonishing. It’s an 11 o’clock number that stops the show, and Erivo’s ovation is well-earned. This is a star-making moment.
Then again, The Color Purple is Celie’s show. Born in Georgia just a generation or two after emancipation, motherless and regularly raped by her stepfather, the teen is left to fend for herself. We first meet Celie as she’s delivering her second child — like her first, to be given away by Pa (Kevyn Morrow). He orders her to marry Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who beats her and tells her she’s ugly and worthless, and for whom she cooks and cleans and cares for his children. After she rebuffs Mister, her beloved sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), is sent away and promises to write; when Celie gets no letters, she assumes her sister dead. She meets and befriends Sofia, who actually has opinions and speaks her mind; for this, eventually, Sofia is arrested and beaten. Celie is forced to care for Shug, Mister’s longtime mistress with whom she falls in love and finally finds happiness — until Shug runs away with a 19-year-old flute player in her band.
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, his bleak meditation on Black American life. It’s an idea made concrete throughout The Color Purple, in which Celie has no control over her existence, her choices, her body, her children.
Ultimately, though, inspired by the models of Sofia and Shug, Celie realizes and asserts her self-worth. Mister sees the error of his ways, and, together with Shug, he arranges to reunite Celie with her children, Olivia and Adam, and with Nettie. The horrible story, improbably but somehow credibly (okay, somewhat credibly), ends in joy.
Walker’s 1982 novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1985 movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, depict a brutally harsh world for poor black women, abused not just by society but by their husbands and fathers. The film gives more attention to the novel’s bright spots, and the musical, which first played in 2005, even more so.
Marsha Norman, who won a Pultizer Prize for ’night, Mother, made the still-horrible parts of Celie’s story less devastating, and she allowed for the sunny, redemptive second half of the second act. The score is by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, successful pop songwriters who have composed for movies, TV, and Madonna. Their work for The Color Purple employs Southern flourishes — gospel here, fiddles there — to beautiful effect.
This revival originated at London’s tiny Menier Chocolate Factory. John Doyle specializes in minimalist reinterpretations of musicals, and you can see how this production — using not much more than chairs, sheets, and some baskets to create a rich version of Celie’s world — was made for that intimate space. (Doyle also designed the sets and choreographed.) There’s a perfect John Doyle moment in the opening scene, when Celie gives birth and a sheet is pulled from her dress and immediately wrapped on itself, turning into a swaddled newborn.
The staging also works remarkably well in the large Jacobs (even if it’s there’s not a clear metaphorical meaning for the collection of wooden chairs suspended all the way up the tall upstage wall). As usual with Doyle, the streamlining allows the script’s emotion to shine clearly through.
And the emotion, of course, is the point. It’s what’s good in the world, or at least in The Color Purple (even if your emotions are a little manipulated). Someone — God, John Doyle, Oprah — will be pissed off if you don’t notice it. A