The Color Purple
At Ivoryton Playhouse
By: Karen Isaacs - Oct 10, 2023
Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Color Purple running through Sunday, Oct. 15, deserves big audiences. It is an ambitious show that is very well performed. Unfortunately, some may believe it is too dark.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, the show talks about some terrible things, but it ends on a note of hope and success.
The musical is based on Alice Walker’s well-known novel, published in 1982, which then became a film (1985) and a musical. (A film of the musical will be released this year).
The Color Purple covers decades in the lives of Celie, her sister Nettie and Shug Avery as they try to survive and maintain hope against the cruelty of men, poverty and the segregation of the period. It is the story of these three women plus Sofia as they struggle to find their places and to survive with their selfhood intact.
The musical, as was the novel, is told in a series of scenes covering 40 years of Celie’s life. If I have one complaint, it is that this production did not clearly spell out the time changes. It needed to be clearer that decades were passing, not just a few years. It was a shock when a character we had just seen with one child and was leaving her husband announces she has six children.
Celie, the heroine of the story, begins as a submissive and abused teenager who has been sexually abused by her stepfather and given birth to two of his children; each child was taken away from her. She is protective of her younger sister, Nettie, who dreams of becoming a schoolteacher. Celie is married off to Mister (Alfred), a widower with almost grown children, who beats her and expects her to work night and day meeting his every need, as well as keeping the house, the farm, and the children.
Mister is still enamored of Shug Avery, a singer and good-time girl; his father prevented him from marrying Shug. With Shug, you see a different side of Mister. We also meet Sofia, a self-possessed and assertive young woman who becomes the wife of Harpo, Mister’s son. Sofia’s domination of Harpo disgusts Mister.
As the years pass, Nettie has left home and apparently cut off contact with Celie, who pines for her. Shug reappears in town and Mister’s life and bed, but also befriends Celie. Sofia and Harpo separate and then reconcile. Shug and Celie develop a romantic relationship despite Shug’s attraction to “bad boys.”
During this time, Celie begins to see another way of behaving rather than submitting to the insults and degradation that Mister dishes out. By the end of the story, Celie has become an independent and self-reliant woman who knows her worth.
Playwright Marsha Norman created the book from the sprawling novel. The music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. It combines gospel, blues, and folk-style melodies.
The show is jammed with songs, some very brief. I was drawn to many, including “Somebody Gonna Love You,” a lullaby early in the show.
Director Todd L. Underwood has assembled a large and terrific cast, as well as a 7-piece ensemble. His casting of four leading roles is spot on. Andrea Fleming as Celie has a sweet voice. Fleming starts as the beaten down (literally and figuratively) Celie but lets you see her slowly awake to her own strength. She is a survivor. The only problem is that when everyone refers to her as ugly, you wonder what they are talking about. As Shug Avery, Renée Jackson shows another way of surviving: awareness that she has lived life on her own terms. Mairys Joaquin as Nettie is both angelic and strong. Her rendition of “Africa” at the start of act two is terrific.
Christian McQueen is Mister, the man you hate. McQueen doesn’t shy away from Mister’s cruelty, arrogance and sense of entitlement – towards his children, Celie, Nettie and others. It is only towards Shug that you sense there is a man with a heart beneath the surface. It is more a fault of the book then McQueen that his transformation at the end is less convincing. It is so briefly told that it almost doesn’t register.
While Sheniqua Trotman has a great voice as Sofia, the fourth woman survivor, she is less able to create a realistic character.
Cully Long designed a flexible set that features a towering pile of chairs which look like a massive tree.
This production of The Color Purple is a show worth seeing.
For tickets, visit IvorytonPlayhouse.org
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.