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The Color Purple Musical Alice Walker Themes Stage

First, it was a 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning fictio novel. In 1985, Steven Spielberg directed the film adaptation of the novel starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey, which earned eleven Oscar nominations. Now, Alice Walker’s most famous literary work, The Color Purple, is a Broadway musical. In conjunction with The National Blacks Arts Festival, the musical made its way to The Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta after premiering at the Alliance Theatre in 2004.

It took producer Scott Sanders eight years to bring The Color Purple to the stage. It is a triumphant story about love, redemption, hope, faith, forgiveness, suffering, incest, lesbianism, women’s rights, separation, and racial discrimination within the Black community. All of these issues are centered around the main, Celie, an “ugly” girl of fourteen who is pregnant for the second time with her step-father’s child. Alice Walker chose to write a story about incest because it, like HIV/AIDS, is something that has been a silent epidemic within the Black community for decades. Women who have suffered the physical, mental, and emotional effects of incest realized, with this literary work, that they were not alone, that trauma did not define them, and that their life, like Celie’s, had purpose. The musical, not only reinforced this message of hope, but it also adds a richer layer to the overall content.

The Color Purple is set in rural Georgia from 1909 to 1949. The set design by John Lee Beatty is spectacular. The audience is immediately transported to that time period by the balmy skylines and breezy, southern countryside with its fields of wheat and cotton. The set changes are seamless throughout the entire performance; it draws the audience in while also enhancing one’s interest in the strong characters.

The costume design by Paul Tazewell did not remind me of the 1900’s, but seemed to be more reminiscent of the 1950’s. One of the most colorful costume scenes came from the dream sequence of the musical. Celie is married off to an abusive man who she only knows as Mister. He drives her sister, Nettie, away by hounding her, and then hides all the letters she writes to Celie. Mister is in love with the vamp Shug Avery who returns to town ill after an extensive singing tour. He brings her home for Celie to nurse back to health. Shug awakens Celie’s sexual desires, finds the letters, gives them to Celie, and eventually abandons her for one last fling with a younger man. Celie’s children have been given to a couple that Nettie is employed by to take care of at a missionary post in Africa. The audience envisions what Africa looks like through Nettie’s letters, and Celie’s imagination. It was remarkably stunning; reminiscent of a lower scale Broadway production of The Lion King. The other aspect of this dream sequence, which was subtle, but served to reinforce how Africa is the true home of African Americans, is when Nettie encounters three village busy-bodies just like the three women back home in Georgia, which was one of the most humorous parts of the musical.

Another humorous aspect of the musical was the relationship between Celie’s stepson Harpo, and his wife Sophia. Sophia is a big, strong-willed, confident, no nonsense type of woman with a mouth and a temper. Felicia P. Fields portrayal of Sophia garnered more sympathy (when she was arrested and beaten up for talking back to a White woman in town) then Jeannette Bayardelle’s portrayal of the main character, Celie. Bayardelle’s voice was amazing; she captured the humor of the story, but her translation of the tragic elements associated with Celie’s character did not come across on stage. Other than that, all the other characterizations were very impressive, just like the musical numbers.

The musical numbers of the show were quite fitting and added depth to the story. From Sophia’s anthem “Hell No!” with its defiant lyrics (which rejects the slave mentality that Black women have to be beaten in order for them to be productive, contributing entities to their households) to “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town” (when all the towns women are rounding up their men) to Shug Avery’s burlesque number “Push Da Button” (about sexual pleasure) to “The Color Purple” at the end of the show (which is reminiscent of the dreamy feelings some people experience when they listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz).

The only draw back was that the sound system at the Fox Theatre was not the best because some of the dialogue was inaudible. Otherwise, the musical was an enjoyable experience. In the end, Mister (Albert) is a changed man. He is doing good things in the community, doing right by his grandchildren, and women. When Nettie and Celie’s two children are unable to get home from Africa, Albert and Shug conspire to bring them home in an effort to make up for the wrongs they have committed against Celie who has, by this point, adopted some of Sophia’s character traits. In the end everyone is reunited, redeemed, and happy. With so many compelling themes in a story, what other ending could there be? The audience is not only left with an appreciation for artistic expression, but also with a feeling of satisfaction, and hopefulness right along with the characters.

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