Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
The Color Purple
The story focuses on Celie (portrayed with both quiet resonance and amazing vitality by Adrianna Hicks), who at an early age falls prey to the circumstances of her life. Of all the trials she suffers, perhaps the worst is being separated from the only one who truly loves her, her sister Nettie (the equally astounding N'Jameh Camara). This story is about sisterhood, not just between Celie and Nettie, but among the other women who come into Celie's life: Strong-willed Sophia (the wonderfully entertaining Carrie Compere) seems to be everything that Celie is not, and sinfully sweet Shug Avery (a captivating Carla R. Stewart) eventually becomes even more than a sister to Celie. These women provide moments of balance and hope as Celie endures the cruelties of her loveless husband, Mister (a commanding Gavin Gregory).
Marsha Norman has tightened up Alice Walker's book, trying to do justice to a host of compelling characters in a reasonable running time. This is done at the expense of character development, frequently sacrificed to get to the next musical moment, though the show at times gives more of an impression of an ensemble piece rather than focusing primarily on the perspective of Celie. Sophia and Shug Avery have equal footing here, especially in the musical numbers. The central theme, of the strength and endurance of poor black women under layers of oppression, is abundant throughout, though, all the way down to the Greek chorus of church ladies (enlivened by Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West) who see everything and have something to say about all of it.
The score, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, supplies broad stretches of exposition, drawing from traditional African music, gospel, blues and jazz. Beautiful, memorable ballads like the tender "Too Beautiful for Words" give way to rousing moments of relief like "Push da Button." The score is more than a collection of songs, though; there are beautiful complexities, particularly in the parts of the church ladies, which reminded me of Frank Loesser's "Fugue for Tinhorns" in Guys and Dolls. The time spent on Sophia and Harpo with "Any Little Thing" in the second act might have been better used to fill in some of the big leaps in chronology.
John Doyle, who has made a name for himself in stripping down popular musicals to the heart of its characters, has tried here to make the characters the focal point, and his minimal sets and costumes allow the show to build an impressive momentum. This revival in particular feels more faithful to the book than the film, especially in its treatment of the relationship between Celie and Shug, though much still is glossed over. Even the barbaric treatment of Mister to Celie seems to be toned down to be kind to family-friendly audiences.
Serving also as set designer, Mr. Doyle created a single, simple yet functional backdrop, the looming walls of a dilapidated shack, banked with scores of wooden chairs. They can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the ease of sitting in a peaceful home that so many of these characters are denied in their lives, especially Celie. The use of these chairs and nothing else calls to mind early minstrel shows that utilized a similar technique of storytelling. Lighting design by Jane Cox and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward provide emotional color throughout, with subtle changes in hues from light pastels to bright colors representing the transformation that Celie goes through as she progresses from a victim to someone who would proudly proclaim "Hell No!"
Adrianna Hicks, as Celie, brings comedic vulnerability and a voice that can break through any constraint, to heartbreaking effect. Carrie Compere is just as engaging in the role of Sophia. As Shug Avery, Carla R. Stewart is capable and at times captivating, though her signature number, "Push da Button," feels oddly uninspired. Special mention is deserved of N'Jameh Camara, who proves her capabilities in the opening of act two as Celie's long lost sister Nettie; and Erica Durham, whose comedic performance of Squeak is a true highlight.
Beauty is around us if only we take the time to notice. As Shug Avery tells Celie at one point, "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and not notice it." This show might do well to slow down and let us enjoy those purples a little more, but when we do see them, they are ravishing.
The Color Purple, through April 8, 2018, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.dpacnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787.
Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray