Tuesday, January 14, 2014

SpeakEasy Stage Company Paints A Vibrant "Color Purple" - A Stunning and Soul-Stirring Production

"The Color Purple" is a work of art - or, rather, a series of works of art in three genres - that captured my attention the first time I saw the Steven Spielberg-directed film of Alice Walker's watershed novel.  I betook myself to the movie theater seven different times in 1985 to let the different shades of color of that story wash over me and sweep me away.  The story of Miss Celie, her sister Nettie, Sofia, Shug Avery and the men who complicated their lives is one over which I feel an almost proprietary interest.  In the late 1980's , I had the rare privilege of spending a day with Oprah Winfrey and discussing with her the role of Sofia that she had created so memorably on the screen.  So, when I learned that a stage version would be coming to Broadway in 2005, I held my breath wondering if they would be able to transfer the magic and the pathos of the story to the stage.  Under the watchful eye of Oprah, Quincy Jones and others, they succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.  I saw the Broadway version a number of times.  Imagine my delight when I learned that SpeakEasy Stage Company would be featuring this musical as part of their 2013-2014 season.
Lovely Hoffman (Celie)
Aubin Wise (Nettie) 

It is never completely fair to compare a Broadway production - with its vast financial resources - to a local production in Boston, but I will say that I enjoyed the SpeakEasy version of this wondrous story every bit as much as I enjoyed the Broadway offering.  Director Paul Daigneault has woven together a wonderful cast composed of local Boston actors and a few who hail from the South where the action of the play is set.  The Musical Direction, under Nicholas James Connell and the Choreography of Christian Bufford add elements to the story telling that are beautifully in keeping with the spirit and ethos of the times and places that they depict.  Jenna McFarland Lord has designed a marvelous set, centered on a barren tree the roots of which delve downstage and over the lip of the stage towards the audience - saying tacitly to the expectant audience members: "This is a story about Black folks in the South, but if you let it be, it can be a universal story; it can be your story, too."  An upstage inclined ramp serves to suggest that each entrance and exit upon that ramp is emblematic of someone's journey in life.  The corrugated metal plates that line the Proscenium suggest not only Harpo's juke joint, but also denote the poverty and simplicity of life of the play's characters.  The simple lighting design by Karen Perlow and Erik Fox provide visual clues that something dramatic is about to transpire when the burlap backdrop or the Proscenium frame change color.  For example, as Miss Celie reluctantly goes off to live with her abusive husband, Mister, the hue of the backdrop changes to blue, ushering in a season of "the blues" for Celie.

The ensemble singing of the cast is spine-tingling, especially in the opening number "Mysterious Ways" and the closing number "The Color Purple."  The rollicking Gospel sounds had audience members joining in and clapping hands.  It became a service of worship and praise celebrating the resilience of the human spirit. Among the excellent ensemble, several individual actors deserve special mention.

Lovely Hoffman  as Celie is the epicenter of the story and of this production.  The script has been edited down to eliminate some of the exposition around other characters, so this production is even more focused on Celie's pilgrimage through life than earlier versions of the story.  Ms. Hoffman is a relatively inexperienced actor, but one would  never know it from the way in which she totally inhabits the role of Celie.  From her first scene, she has the audience in the palm of her hand.  It seems as if the actor has within her a very finely tuned dimmer switch.  When she lost her connection with her sister, Nettie, whatever inner light that Celie had harbored was nearly extinguished.  The dimmer switch was reset near zero.  She was crushed in body and spirit.  One had the feeling that Celie was slowly sinking into herself - living in emotional despair and exhibiting a physical implosion.  But when Shug Avery came into her life and reversed the polarity of her verdict about Celie, then a change began to show.  Initially, in a drunken stupor, Shug pronounced: "You sure is ugly!"  Celie was so used to being called "ugly" by Mister that she hardly reacted.  But soon, as Shug began to see Celie's true character and experience her selfless care for others, Shug proclaimed that Celie was "beautiful."  As the astonishing nature of that word began to sink into Celie's ears and mind and heart and soul, the slightest hint of a smile began to shine from her mouth.  The dimmer switch had been nudged a notch toward the bright end of the scale.  As the story progresses, each time that Celie experiences some tenderness or kind word or healing touch, the dimmer switch moves another notch toward the incandescent.  By the end of the story, as Celie sings her anthem, "I'm Here," she has attained full radiance.

Crystin Gilmore as Shug Avery brings the grittiness and grace of her native Memphis to this role.  As she emerges from the bathtub. her naked backside turned to the audience, there is a dignity and self-confidence in her pose that is a celebration of the human form rather than an occasion for embarrassment or discomfort - for the actor or for the audience. In the scene with Celie described above, her lilting hymn of praise to Celie's latent and hidden beauty, "Too Beautiful For Words," is one of the emotional high points of the show.  Likewise, her duet with Celie, "What About Love?" is a riveting pivot point in the plot and in the women's  shared journey.

Valerie Houston, another Memphis native, brings the bigness and broadness and boldness that is required of a proper Sofia.  Her much anticipated pronouncement and song, "Hell No!" resonates within the heart of any woman who has been victimized by domestic abuse.  Her roller coaster ride of pride, humiliation and return from near death is portrayed with great skill by Ms. Houston.  He coming alive at the dinner table is one of the iconic moments in the show.  "Sofia's back!"

Carolyn Saxon is church soloist and leader of the trio of church ladies who serve as resident Greek Chorus and Gossip Mongers.  Her full-throated Gospel voice is a wonderful vocal anchor for the ensemble numbers and for her solos.  She returns to the SpeakEasy stage after her wonderful turn as Abuela in last season's "In The Heights." 

Maurice Emmanuel Parent tackles the difficult role of Mister with great professionalism and aplomb.  He must convey a dramatic turn from abusive monster to repentant ex-husband searching for ways to find expiation and to make amends for the hurt that he has caused.  That his conversion and redemption into a contributing member of the community is believable is a tribute to this fine actor's craft.  His "Mister Song," sung from the barren tree, gives the audience reason to believe that new leaves may be able to sprout from what had been a dead and petrified stump of a human being.

Jared Dixon, another veteran of SpeakEasy's "In The Heights," returns to Boston to create the role of Harpo.  This is another difficult character to portray, for there are conflicting elements of the buffoon, the hen-pecked husband, the entrepreneur, the philanderer, and the loving spouse.  Mr. Dixon handles all of these facets of Harpo's character with great artistry.  The duet that Harpo sings with Sofia as they are reunited, "Is There Anything I Can Do For You?" is one of the highlights of the show,

Crystin Gilmore, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Valerie Houston,
Anich D'Jae, Jared Dixon, David Jiles, Jr., Cliff Odle,
and Lovely Hoffman
The Color Purple.
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

This is essentially a story about disenfranchised Black women living in the South in the 1920s and struggling to survive abuse, neglect, racism, and poverty.  The fact that this story can cause an old White man from Boston living in the 21st Century to weep with empathy and identification with the universality of this story is a tribute to some wondrous story telling on the part of each  person who has added their own lavender, violet, lilac, mauve or mulberry brush strokes to the painting of this lovely purple portrait.

I was not the only one moved by the performance I attended.  As soon as the lights dimmed to signal the end of the play, all of the audience members sprung to their feet in unison to signal their approbation of the artistry that had just been exhibited on that stage.  SpeakEasy Stage Company is staging a vibrant "Color Purple"; you do not want to miss it.



+   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +

Book by Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Based upon the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture
All her life, Celie has known only hardship and cruelty. Her abusive father married her off at the age of 14 to a callous man who separated her from her only true friend in the world, her sister Nettie. But with every reason to despair, Celie clings to hope, and the promise that love will lead her to healing and joy.
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
The Color Purple contains adult themes and brief nudity.
The show runs through February 8.  For tickets, click on the link below:

1 comment:

Fe Adamsonn said...

I love your post, it entertains me giving all those comparisons and ideas from one another. Thank you for sharing.

Military spouse jobs