COSTA MESA, CA-In 1985, producer Steven Spielberg rocked us with a smoldering examination of racism, sexism, abuse, and sisterhood through the electric prism of The Color Purple. Thirty-three years later, those topics resonate perhaps more profoundly today in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement.
With that said, now a touring Broadway musical, The Color Purple continues to build upon those themes with virtual tenacity as it makes its winding travels in and out of U.S. cities, stopping for a brief stint at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
What we can say about The Color Purple performance on opening night is that the touchy-feel nostalgic you may have had from watching the 11-time Academy Awards nominated film, the musical sequences adds more layered nuances in its storytelling of Celie’s travels from being an unwanted, sexual good-for-nothing caretaker and homemaker for Mister (Gavin Gregory). For those individuals not familiar with The Color Purple the movie, the heavily awarded musical does a combination of things.
For one, it serves to bring the audience a message. However, in this case, there are several. The message of domestic violence rings close to home in many people’s minds when you consider how Mister treats Celie (NiKisha Williams) with degradation hostility. When you examine the backdrop of the time period (1910-1940) during which The Color Purple maneuvers about, the stone-age mentality of men and their perception of how to callously treat women, in particular within the African American family structure, suffering from abuse was a real deal for black women.
Because of the overt racism that Black Americans faced in this country during this era, black masculinity could be only be exhibited and excepted at his home. Thus, the level of abuse that Mister unleashes on Celie becomes sort of a practical matter and justifiable in order to keep everyone else in his household subservient to him. The dynamics of the societal power structure is clearly on display in The Color Purple, in and out of Mister’s bedroom.
The Black family, as we see play itself out in The Color Purple, has always operated under this guise. The pecking order goes like this: white men, white women, black men, black women. Too often the voice of the black woman, historically, winds up being drowned out by fear, intimidation, lack of perceived self-worth, expected domestic duties and being intensely sexualized, their bodies treated like a piece of rejected property.
As Celie goes about this lonesome journey, her only refuge comes from the escapability her mind puts her in. This is helped immensely by the close-knit bond she has with sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) and in the form of the seductive and irresistible Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart). We see Celie go through a myriad of mindset changes. She doesn’t believe in herself. She doesn’t know who she is.
During the first act of The Color Purple, we see a weak Celie, a young woman afraid to stand her ground for anything she believes in. The two people who could show her unconditional love is her mom and Nettie, who is run off by Mister when she doesn’t cave into his predatory advances. That crutch allows Mister to keep Celie on a tight dependency leash. But when Shug comes to town, everything shakes up for both Mister and Celie.
Both Mister and Celie are enamored with the lovely Shug, but for different reasons. Mister sees Shug as a freeway to intimacy. As Stewart prances around the stage in a sexually-teased romp singing “Push da Button,” you get the idea that Shug is preaching grown folks business. That is not why Celie becomes attached to Shug. Celie is the ugly duckling. She had never seen anyone as beautiful and so sure of themselves as Shug Avery.
After an awkward beginning, Shug soon gets wind of the verbal and physical abuse firsthand that Mister rains on Celie and becomes her biggest champion by encouraging her and making her feel like a woman, something she had not felt while being tasked by Mister. However, Celie isn’t the only woman going through something.
Isolation is home for Nettie as she journeys to Africa, thousands of miles away from Celie. Shug questions herself about why is it that in order to express her love for someone it always comes down to having sex. That’s pretty much her M.O. Then there is Sophia (Carrie Compere), the luscious, brown powder keg of a woman. Ophrah Winfrey tore up her role as Sophia in Spielberg’s film. Any actor playing this character needed to bring their hard hat and lunch pail to come close to matching Winfrey’s intense delivery of Sophia.
Compere does that and a little bit more. Not taking anything away from Williams, who was substituting for Adrianna Hicks as Celie, and who does a wonderful job, but Compere steals the show as Sophia. Compere’s Sophia is adaptable at talking trash and unleashing fury towards her husband Harpo (J. Daughtry) as she is in showing compassion for Celie. Not only does Compere bring the thunder in her role as the proud Sophia, you kind of think she has some bit of lightning in the palm of her hands as well when she makes it abundantly clear to Celie she will not tolerate Harpo or any other man putting their hands on her in an aggrieved manner as she leads an all-women sung declaration “Hell No!”
The Color Purple is a self-discovery journey that we see Celie unwillingly embark on. Eventually, Celie finds out that beauty comes from within as she wrestles with the faces of womanhood, sexuality, forgiveness, empowerment, even spirituality. Celie is a survivor. Her story is not a unique one. It is an unforgettable and relatable experience many women have suffered through. It is through this narrative that The Color Purple shines the brightest.