I remember reading ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker in A-level English, analysing the language, and digging into the characters. It was a fantastic story, beautifully written, exploring many important themes. This can often be a worry when you brace yourself to watch a musical adaptation- will it manage to capture the true essence of the story and characters? I needn’t have worried. The musical adaptation by Marsha Norman reflected the story well, and really did it justice. By focusing on just one half of the tale, we engaged and immersed ourselves fully into Celie’s journey. When watching ‘The Color Purple’ at the Wales Millennium Centre, after having last explored its pages over 6 years ago, it all came flooding back to me. I remember the depth of the characters, I remember the complex relationships, the longing for escape, and the way that hope and love ties it all together. And what a story it is.
Set in 1913, in the American South, a young black girl Celie (played by Me’sha Bryan), submits to the oppression of her father as he takes away her newborn children- to where, we don’t know. As her dear sister Nettie is taken away, we follow Celie as she narrates her life through painfully honest letters to God. She questions her faith and longs to be reunited with her first love, Nettie. During this time she finds strength in other women, Shug Avery- a free spirit who encourages Celie to appreciate the beauty of the world, and Sofia- the inspiring female influence that Celie needs to drive herself out of the toxic situation she is in and make decisions for herself.
Celie’s childlike manner in the first few scenes makes it no chore for the audience to fall in love with the character. We can feel her inner hope and innocence, her ambitions for life, and her love for her sister. She is just a young girl, unaware of the horrors that she will have to overcome in the near future. The opening number draws us in immediately, vibrating the theatre with colour and song. A juxtaposition almost, to the horrible treatment that Celie is facing by pretty much all of the men in her life. She faces sexual and physical abuse from her father and her husband – Mister- who is forced upon her after being denied her little sister Nettie because she’s ‘too pure’. Celie is shamed and told she’s ugly her whole life, so much so that she completely accepts it. She rises above adversity and takes the struggles in her stride, this is shown in the climax of the story and in her electric performance of “I’m Here”- which moved me completely.
This show had no lack of strong vocalists, the strength and consistency of these voices were a highlight for me. I loved the three main chorus ladies who took us through the paces of the show with their contemporary and rhythmic vocals. Of course, not forgetting Sofia, played by the incredible Anelisa Lamola. Her voice and presence exuded power, and she delivered a spell-binding performance.
The set design was simplistic but totally effective. It took us to where we needed to be and didn’t contain distraction from the performance in any way. The transitions between scenes were smooth and minimal.The projections worked, and like the costume, gave a contemporary feel to the drama. This is one thing I loved about The Color Purple, it was very different from any other musical I have seen. Whether this was due to the writing, or the delivery, or a bit of both, but there were no cringe-worthy moments or any ounce of ‘cheesy’ dialogue, which I appreciated. I particularly loved the way the final lines of the book were included in the very last lines of the song. In your typical musical you have the big showstopper of an ending, jazz hands, and volume. In The Color Purple, they explored something different, everything was pulled down to it’s raw essence in this last song to focus on our beloved protagonist, Celie. The harmonies, dynamics and texture of the chorus’ voices in these last moments were spine-tingling.
I applaud the direction of the show by Tinuke Craig, and the amazing chorus members who multi-rolled and brought energy and light to the whole performance.
Overall, I was mesmerised by ‘The Color Purple’. It helps that it’s such a well-established story with so much depth. I would recommend it to every audience, those who are fan of the book and the film, musical theatre lovers, and new audiences of theatre. A story of life, beauty, love, hope, and triumph, with a stellar cast.