The Color Purple
Hoffman is at the forefront of the telling of this forty-year saga (she never leaves the stage), but The Color Purple is a showcase for nearly two dozen actors of color, most of whom are making their SpeakEasy Stage debuts. In a cast with an embarrassment of riches, other remarkable featured players whose performances match their outstanding vocal chops include Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Mister), Aubin Wise (Nettie), Valerie Houston (Sofia) and Crystin Gilmore (Shug Avery). Carolyn Saxon seems like she's right out of Central Casting as the Church Soloist and leader of the Greek chorus of ladies who appear periodically to comment on the goings-on in the rural Georgia town. Jarod Dixon (Harpo), Anich D'Jae (Darlene, Squeak), Cliff Odle (Preacher, Ol' Mister) and David Jiles, Jr. (Pa, Grady) bring star quality in supporting roles, and there is no less talent in the rest of the cohesive ensemble.
Under the baton of musical director Nicholas James Connell (keyboard), a five-piece band provides surprisingly full bodied accompaniment. The musical rises on the eclectic score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, expressing the characters' inner thoughts and emotions and advancing the narrative. Although she keeps the foundation intact, Marsha Norman's Tony-nominated book cuts segments of Walker's novel that leave us wondering how or why some things happen, but whatever is lost from the pages is found in the glorious singing and the ability of these actors to disappear into their characters. When Christian Bufford's choreography is added to the mix, scenes become especially vibrant at the church, at Harpo's juke joint ("Push Da Button"), in Africa, and at Celie's business ("Miss Celie's Pants").
The 1982 novel tells Celie's story in a series of fictional letters, and the musical maintains the correspondence between Celie and God, and Celie and her sister Nettie (although Mister keeps Nettie's letters hidden) through song. A poor, 14-year-old black girl who is pregnant (for the second time) at the start of the show, Celie's situation gets worse before it gets better when her stepfather foists her off on a reluctant Mister who would rather marry Nettie. Pa sweetens the deal by throwing in a cow, but Celie is no more than an ugly beast of burden to these men. She is a hard worker and adapts to her new miserable life, sustaining beatings and emotional abuse from her husband and, ultimately, separation from her beloved Nettie.
Eventually, Celie is influenced by two strong women who come into her life. Harpo's steamroller of a wife Sofia sets her straight ("Hell No!") about standing up for oneself, and Mister's longtime lover, charismatic Shug Avery, sees the beauty within Celie ("Too Beautiful for Words") and teaches her about love. Shug is a force of nature and, although she has her share of flaws and weaknesses, she is most responsible for helping Celie turn her life around and she serves as a motivation for Mister's drastic changes, as well. When Celie's star is ascending and Mister's world is crumbling, the turnaround is uplifting, lightening the tone en route to the conclusion. One could argue that things get wrapped up too neatly at the end, but the joy and triumph that Celie expresses in "I'm Here" eradicate any negative thoughts and wash over us like a cleansing tide.
Scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord places a large, multi-branched tree center-stage that is a metaphor for home, the interconnectedness of the community, and the strength of these women, Celie in particular. There is a large backdrop resembling burlap and the proscenium is framed in corrugated metal, giving the suggestion of a rickety shack. A porch swing hangs from the tree or tables and chairs slide in to represent different settings. Karen Perlow and Erik Fox change moods with the lighting design and David Reiffel's sound design balances the voices and musicians well. Elisabetta Polito's costumes range from Celie's thin cotton dresses that appear homemade to Shug's stylish fashions, the colorful African garb, and the conservative dresses of the Church Ladies. As the years pass, the clothing styles reflect changing trends, most notably when Celie's pants become the rage.
Although SpeakEasy moves from their usual home in the cozy Roberts Studio Theatre to the larger Wimberly stage, none of their trademark intimacy has gone missing from The Color Purple. With Daigneault's vision and attention to the smallest emotional details, the contributions of the design team, and the cast's instinctive awareness of who these characters are, the audience is drawn into the world of the play. Whether Hoffman is staring at the floor or tilting her head back to emit a primal wail, her shame and pain are visceral. When she finally has reason to smile and sing out loudly, declaring her triumph to all who surround her, the joyous sound lifts us out of our seats. Either way, it is something to behold.
The Color Purple performances through February 8 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.speakeasystage.com.
Based on the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture; Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray; Directed by Paul Daigneault, Musical Direction by Nicholas James Connell, Choreographed by Christian Bufford; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow and Erik Fox; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Production Stage Manager, Tareena D. Wimbish; Assistant Stage Manager, Phyllis Y. Smith Cast: Lovely Hoffman, Anich D'Jae, Jared Dixon, Crystin Gilmore, Valerie Houston, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Aubin Wise; Ensemble: Jye'l Ancrum, Kymyra J. Anderson-Wolf, Kira Cowan, Matthews D, Akiah Doyle, Xikiyah Firmin, Terrell Foster-James, Alia Hodge, David Jiles, Jr., Jaime Mclaurin, Cliff Odle, Deborah Pierre, Aaron Michael Ray, Carolyn Saxon, Kelton Washington, Taylor Washington