Through Aug. 26
The Kennedy Center
Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” gets its title from one of the novel’s most poignant passages. Raucous juke joint singer Shug Avery asks somber Celie if she ever takes the time to notice the little things that God does to show us love, things that we might take for granted like a field of pretty purple flowers. It’s an especially moving moment for Celie who has known very little tenderness. Her life has been mostly about abuse and hard work.
First a 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Color Purple” was made into a popular film and later a Broadway musical in 2005. Currently the national tour of 2016 Tony Award-winning revival directed by John Doyle is playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre (the national tour of “Hamilton” is selling out next door at the Opera House). Marsha Norman’s serviceable libretto combining humor and heartbreak as well as Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s lively score (an amalgam of jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues) are unchanged, but Doyle’s production is dramatically and very successfully streamlined.
The plot centers on Celie, a poor and plain African-American woman who comes of age in the Jim Crow South. We meet her as an abused farm girl who’s been impregnated by her stepfather twice and has had both subsequent children stripped from her arms. Next, she’s married off to Mister, an unkind man who uses her as a laborer from dawn to night.
The only glimmer of happiness in her dreary life comes from women. Her sister and best friend Nettie who disappears from her life (their eventual reunion is an ongoing storyline), and strong, stubborn Sophia, the wife of Mister’s cowed son Harpo.
And later comes Shug Avery, the blues-singing, booze-swigging, free spirit who captures Celie’s fancy. Carrying a torch for Shug is the only thing Celie and Mister have in common. Eventually it’s Shug who facilitates Celie’s escape from drudgery and helps her claim independence as a shopkeeper/pants designer.
The relative intimacy of the Eisenhower (as compared to the Opera House) suits Doyle’s vision. The set is simple: a tower of wooden kitchen chairs attached to raw, splintered cabin siding. Chairs are cleverly used to create humble homes, jail, a juke joint and various rural locales.
Doyle puts the spotlight on storytelling and performance. Luckily, the tour has assembled a cast of first-rate singers and a terrific-sounding but unseen orchestra. Adrianna Hicks as Celie, Carla R. Stewart at Shug, and Gavin Gregory as Mister, give nuanced performances adding texture and depth to their, at times, broadly written characters. Carrie Compere is a real crowd-pleaser as big, bold Sofia and N’Jameh Camara is convincing as kindhearted missionary Nettie. A talented ensemble of young actors seamlessly morphs from muscular farm laborers to late night revelers to church folk.
Here, Alice Walker writes about female empowerment and finding strength and solace in other women. Though she doesn’t identify as lesbian, Walker was romantically involved with singer Tracy Chapman for a time.
The score is a celebration of women. With “Push Da Button,” Shug brings down the house delivering a risqué song celebrating sexual freedom. “Hell No!” is Sofia’s fearless refusal to be bullied or beaten by men. And Celie’s terrific 11th-hour solo “Still Here” is a triumphant expression of self-love and courage proving that she ultimately wins.