Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple came out in 1982 and took the literary world by storm. Told in a series of letters written to God over forty years by Celie, an oppressed black woman in the American South circa 1909 – 1949, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. Celie’s early life is a chronicle of monumental abuse. Her father rapes her throughout her teens, resulting in two children whom he discards. Then she is virtually sold to Albert, an equally abusive man (Celie calls him “Mister”) who needs a workhorse of a woman to take care of his own wild kids and who despises Celie for what he deems her “ugliness.” In a fit of spite because he can’t bed Celie’s prettier sister Nettie, he casts Nettie out and hides her weekly letters for years until Celie gives her up for dead.
Celie finally does find love with, of all people, Albert’s mistress, the alluring and troubled Shug Avery, and the novel chronicles their love affair (which goes through many changes) and, most of all, their emerging strength as independent women. The story is helped along by a subplot involving Albert’s son Harpo and his volatile relationship with Sofia, a walking ball of fire whose refusal to be dominated by black men or white society nearly gets her killed. Grim things happen to Celie, Shug, and Sofia, but the novel is never grim. It’s lyrical, sometimes funny, and ultimately exhilarating, and when Celie finally accepts on her own that she is beautiful, you can’t help but weep.
The book was made into a movie quickly, by no less a personage than Steven Spielberg. Starring Whoopie Goldberg and Danny Glover, it was well-acted and entertaining, but it felt, somehow, homogenized. It was way too glossy, and it shied away from much of the darker material and from the poignant sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. Spielberg has proven he can go to dark places with his World War II movies, but with Purple he couldn’t resist applying the sheen one finds in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
Twenty years later, the novel was adapted by Marsha Norman, a fine playwright, into a Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Oprah Winfrey, who had played Sofia in the film (she was great!), co-produced the Broadway production and heavily promoted it on her TV show. It ran for three years, winning one Tony award for LaChanze as Celie. I saw the show on tour in San Francisco. It featured Jeannette Bayardelle as Celie and Latoya London (a favorite of mine from American Idol) as Nettie. I enjoyed the show, but my feeling was that, despite some good songs and fine performances, the musical’s director and designers had done no service to Walker’s novel, either on the tour or on Broadway. The whole thing was too big and bright, and I, who love musicals, didn’t appreciate the generic “musicalization” of the story, which I thought stripped it of much of its original power.
Why am I telling you all this? Because when it was announced that The Color Purple was being revived on Broadway a mere seven years after it had closed, I thought, “What’s the point?” What I hadn’t reckoned with were the creative powers of John Doyle. Born in Scotland, Doyle has emerged as one of the premiere “re-imaginers” of musical theatre, especially the work of Stephen Sondheim. His take on Sweeney Todd, set in an asylum and forcing the actors to do double duty as musicians, is a classic example. He performed a similar feat with Company, which I liked even better. And in 2013, at The Menier Chocolate Factory, he set his sights on The Color Purple. At last, somebody has gotten it right.
I believe Doyle and his designers recognized two things about the original production. It was too big, and it was too literal. It sacrificed the intimacy of Celie’s story for overblown staging and distracting musical numbers. (I have no idea how many people were in the tour I saw, but it felt like forty.) A great example is the Act II opening number “African Homeland,” in which Nettie chronicles her years serving as a missionary and taking care of Celie’s children. What we lost sight of in that original version was the crucial fact that Celie was reading her sister’s letters! I acknowledge that the act of reading is not, in and of itself, inherently dramatic, but . . . well, yes it is! Or at least it can be, as the current revival at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre proved to me last night.
How does Doyle get it right? He starts by stripping the realism away from the design so that we can focus on the characters and their stories. The simple set (designed by the director) of high walls, marked with chairs, looms over us but never distracts as the story unfolds. He reduces the cast to sixteen, so that every member of this ensemble becomes a vibrant individual, even though most of them play multiple roles. And he keeps his staging intimate, even the bigger numbers. The opening, “Joyful Noise,” becomes a prayer meeting in which the audience participates. “Push De Button,” Shug Avery’s big performance number, becomes an erotic aid to the stiff women of the town (and probably to many of us who were watching it!) And my least favorite number, “African Homeland,” became one of my most favorite, because it focused on Celie in such a way that we never lost sight that these were Nettie’s letters come to life and that the act of reading them would unleash a rage and power that would allow Celie to emancipate herself from Albert’s oppression.
And most of all, Doyle got it right by casting Cynthia Erivo as Celie. She played it in London and makes her Broadway debut here. It earned her a Tony Award, and while it will take a few more revivals to discover whether this role, like that of Mama Rose in Gypsy, is one of those turns that always gets you a Tony, Erivo is a revelation. She plays Celie stronger from the start, so that her emergence as a lover, a reliant friend and an entrepreneur is totally believable. When this Celie meets Shug, she isn’t the bashful mute that Whoopie Goldberg played. This is a woman whose life of drudgery and abuse has caused her to hate herself. Under Shug’s tender ministrations, all of that changes. Watching Erivo’s transformation on the stage raises bumps on your skin. Even when someone else sings to her, you don’t want to take your eyes off Erivo for fear of missing a reaction.
The original Shug Avery was played by Jennifer Hudson, who has since left the show. I can’t comment on her performance, except to say that she sounds good on the CD. She has been replaced by Heather Headley, who I can only imagine acts rings around Hudson. Headley is sinuous as hell, and she brings her potency right down into the seats. Every one of us in that house could understand why everyone on that stage wanted this Shug Avery. Headley also captured Shug’s fragility, her awareness of how much of a sham her allure can be and how age will quickly eliminate her power over men. Her duet with Celie, “What About Love?” is heartbreaking in the hands of these two amazing actresses. In that one song, they achieved more understanding about the love that can exist between two women than Spielberg could muster in a two and a half hour film.
Danielle Brooks, one of my favorite actresses from Orange Is the New Black, is a comic delight as Sofia, and she shares great chemistry with Kyle Scatcliffe’s endearing Harpo. The musical rushes through most of the tragedy that happens to Sofia too quickly to leave much of a lasting effect, so in effect she is reduced to half of the comic love subplot found in most traditional musicals. I suppose it couldn’t be helped, but fortunately we never lose the focus on Sofia’s position as Celie’s first friend and how her strength inspires Celie to take her first subtle steps toward independence. One of The Color Purple’s greatest assets is that it is a story about women, something we need much more of in every field of the performing arts. Every woman on that stage brought her game to this performance in dazzling fashion, reveling in the stories they were telling us about abuse leading to survival, love and empowerment.
If the finale comes off as a little too pat, too “happy ending,” with everyone setting aside the great wrongs of the past and gathering together to witness the miraculous reconnection of sister with sister, mother with children, it doesn’t really matter in the moment as you let the stirring final number wash over you. I sat in the second row last night, totally enthralled by a musical that ten years ago I would have described as “pleasant.” Under John Doyle’s leadership and with this brilliant cast, I felt lucky to bear witness to a transformation as glorious as Celie’s.