Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Color Purple – A Winner on Broadway

At the outset of this piece, I must admit to feeling a close personal connection with both the book and the movie version of “The Color Purple.” They both struck a strong emotional chord with me – particularly as they wrestled with the issues of racial injustice, poverty and domestic violence. I think I saw the movie as many as seven times when it was released in 1985 – enough that I had memorized much of the dialogue.

One of the most vivid memories I have from that era of my life is of a day that I spent working on a Habit Humanity project on the West Side of Chicago hammering together window frames as part of a five-person team. On that particular day, the work crew I had been assigned to consisted of me, three furloughed federal prisoners who had been released to work on building the house, and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah had recently been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sophia in “The Color Purple.” As Oprah and I were hammering away at the window frames, I began to recite – in full Southern dialect – many of Sophia’s lines from the movie, including the poignant line that Sophia utters after being released from jail: “I don’t know none of y’all no mo’!” Oprah roared with delight and surprise, and we had a marvelous day together.

That year, “The Color Purple,” was nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards, and was totally shut out – winning none! There was an understandable furor over accusations of racism in Hollywood. I was deeply disappointed at Hollywood’s snub of one of my favorite films.

When I learned that Oprah was one of the driving forces behind turning “The Color Purple” into a Broadway musical, I was both excited and concerned. Would the integrity of the story hold in a musical genre? How well would the story translate to the limits of the stage? The early reviews were mixed when the show opened a few weeks ago, but audience response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. So, when I managed to score a half-price ticket for last Friday’s performance, I entered the theater with some trepidation. Would the show live up to my high expectations, or would I walk out disappointed?

I need not have worried. The creators of this show had me fully engaged by the end of the opening production number – a rollicking Gospel tour de force entitled “Mysterious Ways.” The story line was faithful to the book and to the movie versions, but included the delightful addition of a “Greek Chorus” of three busybody Church Ladies who almost stole the show with their incessant harping, commenting and tut-tutting about all of the show’s characters and their moral failings. I happened to be sitting in the midst of a group of African-American women who had made the trip from Mississippi to NYC in order to see this show. After a particularly hilarious and dead-on turn by the Church Ladies, during the applause, I turned to the ladies and remarked: “I’ve been to that church; I’ve met those ladies!” The woman next to me smiled and retorted: “Honey, we’ve all been to that church!”

And that may be part of the genius of the appeal of this show. The creators have taken an already powerful story and have projected that story through the lens of the shared common experience of the Black Church as a touchstone of African-American community life. It is a brilliant conceit, and it enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the story, as it did for the rest of the predominantly Black audience that loved every minute of the show.

The acting, singing and dancing were exceptional. The actresses who played the roles of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, Sophia and the Church Ladies were particularly impressive. The African dancing in the opening scene of Act II, “African Homeland,” was breathtaking in its beauty and athleticism.

Sophia's show-stopping number, "Hell No!," sung and acted with spine-tingling intensity by Felicia P. Fields, is a paean to ending domestic violence and spousal abuse. The song distills the central message of the show - empowering those who had heretofore been victims. The souvenir stand in the lobby of The Broadway Theater featured T-shirts emblazoned with "Hell No!"

Can you tell that I loved this show?!

The musical has garnered 11 Tony nominations. But, I am a little worried about a repeat of the 1986 Academy Awards shutout. During the intermission, I ended up talking with another audience member who is a Broadway veteran. He appeared in the original production of “Dream Girls,” and has been around Broadway for over 20 years. He shared with me that the early “buzz” is that the musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” may sweep the awards in the musical categories, and “The Color Purple,” may fade under the glare of the klieg lights when the awards are announced on June 11.

No matter how many, or how few, Tony statuettes “The Color Purple” will end up taking home, the show is already a winner in my book. Color me enthusiastic about this latest adaptation of Alice Walker’s moving story about empowerment and overcoming incredible odds to find love and self-respect.

If you are going to be in and around NYC, and are looking to find a place to invest your entertainments dollars, you could do far worse than to spend an evening with the Church Ladies of “The Color Purple.” A national tour is planned for next spring.



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