TAMPA — It would seem like a challenging task, creating joy from the traumatic effects of slavery. But that is what The Color Purple does. The Broadway show, running this week at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, arcs beautifully from a beginning of simplicity and pain to hard won triumph.
What makes it challenging? Because to do that, you have to make the audience feel the hardship, something people typically go to musicals to escape. This stripped down revival announces its intentions as the lights come up. The set consists of a bare wood floor, unvarnished planks suggestive of the early 20th-century farmhouse in which it opens. Even as the action switches to a juke joint, a comfortable home in Memphis or an African village, the set doesn’t change. Only the abstract rear wall announces something very different from simplicity, a breathtaking matrix of dozens of straight-backed chairs hanging on an earth-toned backdrop that stretches to the top of the curtain.
In a world of indentured servitude, in which women are chattel dealt between employers and used for pleasure, in which everyone works hard but the servants work hardest, a chair and corn liquor equal luxury. The fact that the slavemasters are African-American farmers only amplifies the original sin because people pass down what they know, including cruelty.
Thus the songs evolve from a Sunday morning hymn about how the Lord works (Mysterious Ways) to a field song (Big Dog), in which a chanting male ensemble uses the chairs like imaginary pitchforks or shovels, to prayers. The believability of the desperation and the reason for their hope lies in the hands of performers, and they do not disappoint.
Chief among them is 14-year-old Celie, who gives birth to her second child, by her father, at the end of the first song. The story charts her growth over four decades, starting with her and her sister Nettie’s transfer to the whip-wielding Mr. Johnson, or "Mister." Nettie soon rebels and escapes, leaving Celie alone and unsure what has become of her children. She is the emotional center; the play is her journey to self-acceptance and empowerment. Adrianna Hicks captures that growth at every stage, her songs increasing in power and belief to a level higher than high. She finds her anger, then her talent as a clothes designer, then her fulfillment and even forgiveness of Mister, her primary tormentor.
Celie’s growth had to go through key benchmarks, the most significant of which is her meeting with the wild-living, free-spirited Shug Avery, a honky-tonk singer. Carla R. Stewart plays Shug with tenderness and vitality, with swag and the pipes that justify her reputation. An early role model, the unbreakable Sofia, sets the hook early with an anthem of defiance (Hell No!). That song, forcefully sung by Carrie Compere, marks the first of several gear changes reflected in the music. As the women find their strength and inner beauty, songs branch out into jazz and blues (Shug’s Push Da Button), and the African folk (African Homeland) surrounding Nettie, who unbeknownst to Celie has been adopted by missionaries.
None of the inspiration that blossoms would be possible without Gavin Gregory as Mister, whom Celie has cursed as she escapes to live with Shug in Memphis. His character’s evolution as he reveals his own upbringing (Celie’s Curse) sets the stage for the homecoming and family reunions that follow. Gregory, who also played the role on Broadway, is credibly human and eventually sympathetic. He and Celie anchor a musical that contains relatively few spoken passages, thus must thrive in the singing. The struggle and growth of the characters has a visual dimension, in the colorful clothing that gradually replaces the sepia-toned first act. A fun reunion number by the formerly retrograde Harpo, Mister’s son (J. Daughtry) and Sofia (Any Little Thing) shows that equality between genders is not only fair but sexy.
The action was a little hard to follow at times, particularly in ensemble numbers that had to compete with jazzy music. But intentions become clear, and focused performances gel into a hopefulness that uplifts the audience.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.