The Color Purple
Music & Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, & Stephen Bray; based on the novel by Alice Walker.
Early in the show, The Color Purple, there is a line in the song, "What About Love" - a duet between Shug and Celie – that goes, "I want you to be a story for me that I can believe in."
And I am in tears. The setting is early 1900s, but the theme of holding on to another in order to survive the seemingly unbearable is timeless.
The power of the songs, performed by a standout cast headed by Jeannette Bayardelle, who plays Celie, offers a spiritual high that makes the upwards of $100 ticket price pale in comparison. The Color Purple is threaded with themes of darkness and despair, but, what shines through are glimmers of faith and hope.
The spirit of Oprah Winfrey, who is a presenter of this performance, frames the musical. After having been nominated in 1985 for Best Supporting Actress, thanks to her role as Sophia, Miss Winfrey went on to launch her now increasingly popular and successful namesake TV program. Thus, it's impossible to separate our feelings for The Color Purple from our appreciation of the work of Oprah Winfrey. Few among us get to Chicago to give Oprah a standing ovation, but we can go to her show right here in San Francisco and leap to our feet when the cast comes out for it’s final bow.
The title is a belief that a God who created the beautiful color purple could never be cruel and unloving, and that prayers of a bewildered and obedient young Celie will be answered. Forty years of faith is furthered by a quartet of lively Church ladies (Lynette DuPree, Kimberly Ann Harris and Virginia Ann Woodruff) singing, clapping and stomping. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are stunning - from the ladies' handsome hats, to "Miss Celie's Pants," a business that brings our heroine financial independence in post-WWII Georgia. This reminded me of an essay by Alice Walker, "In Search of our Mother's Gardens," which examines the way in which woman often find a way to endure by finding an outlet for their artist’s voice. Celie takes problems of the soul and spirit and transforms them into problems of craft. She makes art in clothes, and subsequently finds joy and satisfaction.
Comparing The Color Purple to the Gershwin folk opera, Porgy and Bess is in order. Music heightens poetry, giving emotional breadth and depth to mere words. This aspect justifies this new version, even though much of the story is simplified (for example, Sophia's disfigurement and partial blindness evaporate in the musical). Instead, we applaud Sophia's stubborn, "Hell, No!" even though we know that her independent spirit in that place at that time would cause her serious trouble.
The most rigidly Puritanical viewer must cheer for Celie when she finds love with her husband's ex-mistress (Michelle Williams), or when Celie finally stands up to his brutish behavior. We are overjoyed and satisfied when Celie is ultimately reunited with both her own grown children and the long-lost sister who raised them.
Direction by Gary Griffin keeps the show fluid, as do John Lee Beatty’s evocative set pieces. When the story moves to Africa, the choreography of Donald Byrd proves equally exciting. Performers are uniformly excellent, from the leads to supporting roles.
But, in the end, the real question is: is it worth up to $100 a ticket for a show based on a movie you probably have already seen, based on a book that you have probably read? As one character, Sophia (Felicia P. Fields), would put it – “Hell, Yes!”
Running October 9 - December 9
Tue - Sat eves at 8pm
Wed, Sat and Sun - mats at 2pm
Sun eve, 10/14 at 7:30
Fri mat, 11/23 at 2pm
2 hours 40 minutes (including intermission)
Tickets: $35 - $99