I have loved both book and film of The Color Purple for as long as I can remember. Alice Walker’s novel of strong black females in an America which sees them as not just second-class citizens, but non-entities, is a seminal text in both feminist and LGBTQIA+ literature.
This musical, written by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is a towering testament to the power of Broadway. With a sublime score, both highly energetic and hugely emotional, and a rock-solid book, it does full justice to Celie’s story of survival.
We first meet Celie (played by the amazing T’Shan Williams, truly a star-making performance at every moment) when she is cradling her second child. She’s a teenager, and the father of both children is her Pa, who quickly disposes of both baby and Celie: offering her in marriage to Mister, a violent widower and father.
Throughout Celie’s life, her relationships with other women are her strength. Her sister Nettie (another knockout performance from Danielle Fiamanya); the forthright fighting spirit of Sofia (a difficult part grabbed with both hands by Karen Mavundukere).
Then the sultry, devil may care, sassy, sexy Shug Avery (a powerhouse performance from Carly Mercedes Dyer): her husband’s mistress and the woman who teaches her to love. Despite the need for the actors to keep their distance, their intimacy from first touch to moments of passion is clearly invoked.
Reset in the round, The Color Purple At Home doesn’t miss out on anything. The choreography from Mark Smith is nothing less than superb, mixing old-time hoofing with contemporary chorus line moves. It’s joyous to see a full company letting go like this.
There is a chorus of catty young ladies pointedly commenting on the action with looks and gestures now and then, which made me think of a similar set-up in Little Shop of Horrors. They add a bit of levity to proceedings but are shockingly naive at others.
Although this is a piece which pushes women to the front and centre, despite their abuse by both men and the state, the parts for men are excellent. Ako Mitchell is excellent as the conflicted Mister, who doesn’t know anything about kindness and caring until late in life; while Simon-Anthony Rhoden (a former Lola in Kinky Boots) fleshes out the role of Harpo, Mister’s bullied son.
I loved how Williams portrayed Celie’s moments of quiet triumph one moment, and of pent-up anger the next. Her look of utter joy as she falls in love with Shug is deeply moving and exhilarating. This is a triumphant revelation of a woman who never enjoyed or sought love with a man.
The creative team, led by director Tinuke Craig, need special applause for making this powerful production work in an empty auditorium. Musical director Alex Parker, designer Alex Lowde, sound designer Tom Marshall and lighting designer Ben Cracknell have all produced amazing work here.
The company is as good as any you will see, with no weak link in the cast. Everyone has their moment, however small, and whether we are in Celie’s laundry, in the bar where Shug sings, or in the local jail, we feel exactly what the source material intends and accept the passage of time which leads to a beautiful reconciliation in the final scene.
The Color Purple At Home is simply unmissable. It is streaming until 7 March and you can buy your ticket here. It is produced by Curve Leicester in association with Birmingham Hippodrome.
Image credit: Pamela Raith
LouReviews received complimentary access to review The Color Purple.