Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple tells the story of Celie; twice impregnated as a teen, robbed of her children, given into an abusive marriage, separated from her beloved sister and abandoned by the woman with whom she finds love. But eventually, she comes to term with who she is, enough so to stand up for herself, and ultimately finds true contentedness – an optimistic suggestion that love can overcome the cycle of trauma and abuse.
It is a complex novel to be given a stage adaptation, never mind for musical theatre, so of course it is greatly condensed. The musical – by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – draws on both the 1982 book and the 1985 Spielberg film, but simplifies the vast themes to the journey of one woman, Celie, as she somehow manages to overcome the many barriers that black women faced in the early 1900s Deep South. In another sense, though, it could be seen as a choice to focus more on black existence and joy rather than yet another story which purely focusses on black struggle.
This condensing keeps the narrative going at a rapid pace but reduces the detail of storyline and the severity of topics covered. Particularly I felt this retraction in the missed clarity around Celie’s illiteracy and subsequent struggle to communicate with her sister whilst under the thumb of her husband. I felt it in the condensing of Nettie’s life away from Celie into one song (‘Africa’), as well as the underdevelopment of Shug and Sophia in Act 2 which results in a sort of ambivalence towards these major plot points.
This online concert version of the Leicester Curve’s 2019 production, produced in cooperation with the Birmingham Hippodrome, actually benefits from the Covid restrictions by creating a stripped down style that puts plot and characters front and centre, as well as featuring its strong cast. This simplicity is greatly enhanced by the sentient lighting design by Ben Cracknell and vibrant costume design by Alex Lowde.
The cast perform on the Curve’s revolve, surrounded not by set pieces but by a bare auditorium in the background. The stage has a neutrality that allows us to focus on the narrative without erasing the theatricality of it by occasionally reminding us that we are digitally in the theatre. That said, seeing the empty auditorium, at times, does give you a wee pang of sadness.
Directed by Tinuke Craig, the production is beautifully filmed with a directness that makes you feel part of the action (especially in the ensemble scenes) in a way that wouldn’t be possible from sitting in the auditorium. The benefits of filming such a production means that a certain continuity is possible by removing lengthy scene changes but also comes with the disconcerting lack of shared audience energy, particularly felt in the silence following showstopping numbers when you want to burst into applause.
The sublime musical direction by Alex Parker can be heard in the seamlessly blended voices of the cast and their gorgeous vocals. I’d like to give a special shout out to Anelisa Lamola (Church Soloist) and Karen Mavundukure (Sofia) whose presence and voices are just ridiculous. While the music is nice to listen to as you watch, there are few songs that really pack a punch.
On the note of stand outs, there is the brilliant and blazing Carly Mercedes Dyer who shines as Shug Avery. Although Shug enters the story in a rough place, she becomes captivating as we see the passionate, lovable Shug as she acknowledges Celie’s strengths in ‘Too Beautiful for Words’. But she really comes into full, glowing, hip-swinging, vivacious glory in ‘Push Da Button’ – the definite highlight of Act 1. It’s such a party that makes you want to boogie in Harpo’s Joot Joint.
And then, of course, T’Shan Williams is a force as Celie. She deftly negotiates the lifetime of the character from naïve child to assured woman. She has such an expressive and open face that makes you believe in her sincerity and goodness. How she remains so calm throughout the brutalities of her life is baffling but makes it all the more impactful when she realises her own value and strength in the 11 o’clock number ‘I’m Here’ (which I’d argue is one of the best MT songs going). Wonderfully, Williams puts her own spin on the powerful anthem of self-acceptance, which really is spectacular. Her Celie is full of a hope and persistence that rubs off on everyone she meets along her journey – and having witnessed that journey, her radiance in the finale ‘The Color Purple’ is so rewarding.
Against a backdrop of harrowing themes, The Color Purple rises above to deliver a show about hope, joy, and love – most importantly, self love. It gives goosebumps, celebrates the strength of women and reminds you of that feeling of sitting in a theatre washed with awe, so that to me, is well worth a watch right now.
Available at http://www.curveonline.co.uk/ until 7 March 2021. Images by Pamela Raith