‘The Color Purple’

Photo by Petronella J. YtsmaBY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

The Broadway musical version of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” now showing at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre, is almost operatic. As such, it is able to showcase the powerhouse of talent that exists in the black community of the Twin Cities. Two lead artists, the director and choreographer, Lewis E. Whitlock III, and actress/singer Regina Marie Williams (Shug Avery) are residents of South Minneapolis. Whitlock is mainly associated with Penumbra Theatre, but has directed and choreographed at theaters, including the Guthrie, both in and beyond Minnesota, and in fact has an international reputation. Williams is an Ivey Award winner (among other awards) and has performed with Mixed Blood, Pillsbury House Theatre, and many others. At least one other principal, the artist Seitu Jones, who designed the set, has Minneapolis connections.
For the readers who have neither read the book nor seen the movie, “The Color Purple” is the story of Celie, played by Aimee K. Bryant. We first meet Celie as a girl of 14, when she is about to give birth to her second baby. Both pregnancies are a result of rape committed by “Pa.”  He takes the children from her at their births and she expects never to see them again. Celie’s main love and comfort in life is her prettier, smarter, younger sister, Nettie. As so often happens, Pa is beginning to have an interest in Nettie, too.
Celie is given to an older man, who first comes courting Nettie, a widower with children who needs a cook and cleaner, a man she has known for 20 years only as “Mister,” performed by T. Mychael Rambo. He beats her constantly, rapes her occasionally, and generally makes her life hell, but the worst thing he does, and the thing that finally breaks through Celie’s passivity, involves her beloved sister Nettie, who, like her children, is gone far away and presumed dead. So as not to spoil it, I will leave you to find out the details. The other major characters are Harpo, played by Darius Dotch; Mister’s mild-mannered son; Harpo’s fiery wife Sofia, played here by the incredibly talented Thomasina Petrus; and Shug Avery, a juke joint singer-dancer and wild woman who has a past with Mister (among others). Celie moves through the story from downtrodden to radiant, mainly through the influence of Sofia and Shug, each in their unique way.
The stage musical is quite different in both mood and emphasis from either the novel of 1982 or the Steven Spielberg produced film of 1985. As the story spans 36 years of history with a large cast of characters, some condensing was necessary for both the film and the musical play. The stage version, despite being a musical, is not as light and “positive” as Spielberg’s version, nor does it elide the sexual relationship between Shug and Celie as much as the film did.
It doesn’t pull punches, if you’ll pardon the expression, in the fight and beating scenes, either. The beating of Sofia by a white mob happens offstage, but the scenes of her with her horrible injuries are graphic and powerful. This was preceded, several scenes back, by Sofia leading what I thought was the best song and dance number in the show, “Hell No!” She has had to leave Harpo because he attempted to beat her, not that he wanted to, but because he was feeling pressured to make her obedient “like Celie.” Sofia summarizes her attitude toward a woman who will stay with a man who beats her, while the inspired other women, even the sedate and judgmental “church ladies,” dance with their defensive weapons of choice, from frying pan to shotgun.
The Church Ladies is one element that is unique to the musical; they are a proper Greek Chorus but Southern Baptist instead of pagan. And this is another wonderful casting choice, as the musical casting for the Park Square’s performance was done by Rev. Carl Walker, who has both Baptist preaching and musical theater credentials, and his choices for the ensemble are inspired.
The house was full for the Sunday matinee when I was there. This show is highly popular, and it’s easy to see why. Even the minor characters, which space does not allow me to list, are high-powered performers with their own followings. The music and the dance are the strong suits, but all the acting is excellent as well. There is very little spoken dialogue, and yet the songs somehow seamlessly tell the story, and the dance is never artificially placed. The range of musical styles is wide: everything from gospel and work hollers to hot jazz and torch songs.
You should go and see, and hear, “The Color Purple,” running through Feb. 15 at The Park Square Theater.  Call the box office for ticket information: 651-291-7005.

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