Within the titular song, the simple joys of life are found, even when everything else is complicated. The entire duration of the musical “The Color Purple” embodies this philosophy, with simple set design and dialogue and not-so-simple melodies and stories that end in deeper joy than fields of purple.
“The Color Purple” opened at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 2, as the Tony-winning revival is making its way across the country.
The play, based on the novel of the same name by Alice Walker, tells the story of Celie, played by Adrianna Hicks, and her life in the rural American South in the early 20th century. Her life, like most of those around her, is full of struggles — as the musical begins, a 14-year-old Celie is forced by her father to give away her baby and is sold into marriage with a brutal man, saving her little sister from having to marry the man.
The musical is centered around the struggles of racism and sexism in the town, and uses the individual stories of its women to show the resilience needed to face these challenges. Celie doesn’t initially put up a fight with her husband (Gavin Gregory), who she just refers to as “Mister.” But Sofia (Carrie Compere), the woman who Celie’s son-in-law, Harpo (J. Daughtry), is seeing is strong and loud. Sofia leaves Harpo the moment he tries to hit her, in contrast to Celie, who doesn’t see how she could leave her husband, even as Mister beats her nightly. Nettie (N’Jameh Camara), Celie’s sister, tries to overcome the limitations her society has placed on her by doing missionary work in Africa. Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), Mister’s obsession and a fixture of town gossip, is boldly feminine and takes abuse from no man, eventually inspiring Celie to take control of her own life.
The musical starts with Celie and the women around her having little power in society and over their own bodies. By the end of the show, the women are empowering each other and themselves, with Shug showing Celie her own beauty, and Celie discovering for herself her own worth.
For a show with such a colorful title, “The Color Purple” featured a set and costumes that were fairly simple. The backdrop was three jagged floor-to-ceiling columns of wood covered with chairs that the cast could remove and place around the stage to set different scenes. The only other props were strips of fabric and baskets. The costumes were also fairly muted as the town was poor, with the exception of Shug, a successful singer, who brought the first bright color to the play. Eventually, the other women in the town found the courage to wear similarly bright colors.
The understated nature of the staging and costumes really let the voices and the acting shine through with passion and grace, spotlighting the themes of the play. There was not one weak link in the cast, but the women especially brought power and soul to the music. The gospel score was not only brought to life by the main characters, Celie and Shug, but made even more compelling by the power of the ensemble — the cast grabbed the audience’s attention when it needed to and at other times gave only a soft background mood when the attention needed to be on the main characters.
In the end, the formidable cast was what made this musical such a moving one. In a setting full of such trial and fear, the idea of women lifting one another up as they realize their own self worth is an idea much needed and well executed. The musical was moving because of the music and the talent it took to carry those melodies, but also because of the message — of watching women who are told their whole lives to be invisible and to obey become the masters of their own bodies and livelihoods, all in perfect harmony.