Thursday 4 July 2019

The Color Purple

Curve, Leicester
3rd July, 2019

‘Yes, I’m beautiful and I’m here’

I first read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning The Color Purple two years ago after my mum recommended it for what seemed the hundredth time. I remember being stunned by Walker’s singular use of dialect, the striking, deceptive simplicity of her prose and the sensory envelopment it induced, as well as the importance of its themes within both BAME and LGBT+ literary culture. However, I’m embarrassed to admit, I didn’t absorb all the details of the plot – I remember a hazy sort-of synopsis, a brief, and thus unflattering, outline of a story one might tell after a pint or two – I remembered the hardships and cruelties Walker describes, yet the specifics eluded me. So at the close of Tinuke Craig’s production of Marsha Norman (book), Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s (music and lyrics) adaptation, I was struck by how uplifting the musical is. I came to realise that Walker’s narrative is one of hope – an obvious observation, yet one I somehow hadn’t previously connected with. This revival, a collaboration between Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome, is not without fault, but is irresistibly moving and thought-provoking.

We are introduced to a 14-year-old Celie (T’Shan Williams) and her younger sister, Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) playing children’s games on a scorching Sunday morning. As the town congregates at the local church whispers circulate about identity of  the father ofCelie’s unborn baby. Celie’s baby is torn from her arms by her preying, incestuous Pa, the first of many injustices Celie is dealt in this odyssey of heartbreak, suffering, forgiveness and, finally, happiness. The story unfolds beneath the social evolutions and set-backs of the Deep South in the early 20th Century which sees Celie sold into a marriage of servitude and abuse. Over time, she gradually learns her own worth and gains the power to fight back against her oppressors with the help of the strong women she loves.

While Walker constructs a coming-of-age narrative weaved throughout a lifetime of experience, Norman and co. don’t quite capture the decades-long extent of Celie’s struggle. The episodic structure of the piece has a jumpy effect; morsels of music are interspersed with lengthy scenes that occasionally come across as stilted. Conversely, Alex Lowde’s set focuses on the paradoxical stasis of Celie’s life in opposition to the headlong trajectory of the plot. The cavernous depths of the Curve stage are blocked out by an imposing wooden-clad wall, a physical barrier to Celie’s freedom and happiness. Lowde’s is a thoughtful design, yet I feel an opportunity was missed in not opening out the space more during the second act stages of Celie’s liberation.

Russell, Willis and Bray’s music draws upon jazz, ragtime and gospel, and it brims with woozy emotion, if a little structurally uneven at times. Although the orchestrated skittishness sometimes fits well with the action (eg. overlaps and musical rounds perfectly capture the insidious humour of the gossiping Greek Chorus, and the erratic motifs in Mister’s Song/Celie’s Curse soliloquises a thrilling combination of grief and self-flagellation), I often found myself wishing individual numbers were developed further (I’d have loved Shug’s ‘Too Beautiful For Words’ to have lasted longer, it was such a touching moment). The production comes alive through song, but the necessity to keep the narrative moving leaves us with truncated music that only fleetingly reaches its fullest potential. 

But, boy, when the score hits those highs the show soars. Shug’s charismatic talents are showcased in ‘Push Da Button’, a bluesy barnstorming anthem of female empowerment, while her duet with Celie, ‘What About Love?’, is a captivating and tender song about sexual and emotional development that deserves to become a standard of the musical theatre canon.

Joanna Francis excels as the worldly and enticing Shug Avery, capturing the muddle of maternal generosity and flighty flirtatiousness that provokes a sexual frisson with almost everyone she encounters. Elsewhere, Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Karen Mavundukure are a blast as the feisty on/off couple, Harpo and Sofia, and Ako Mitchell’s Mister is a toxic concoction of rage and self-pity hidden beneath a crisp veneer of false propriety. Craig’s characterful ensemble enliven proceedings and effectively ratchet up the easy, carefree atmosphere of the Juke Joint, bringing an infectious vibrancy to the stage. T’Shan Williams excels in the central role, portraying Celie’s transformation from meek victim to independent woman with a sweetness and fire that immediately endears one to her character. The power of her vocals is matched by her nuanced acting; Celie’s journey from despair to belief, love and hope is, in Williams’ hands, a believable and rewarding experience.

As an atheist it would be easy to approach the message of The Color Purple with cynicism. Yet, Norman, Russell, Willis, Bray and Craig attend to the source material with earnestness, allowing the story’s philosophy to ring true with simplicity and compassion, and without ever edging into ‘preachiness’. When Celie’s exultant belief reverberates around the auditorium with her final ‘Amen’, I defy anyone not to feel some sense of higher power exemplified in the natural wonders of our world and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Color Purple plays at Curve until 13th July and at Birmingham Hippodrome 16th – 20th July 2019.
T'Shan Williams and Danielle Fiamanya in The Color Purple.
Credit: Manuel Harlan.

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