Speakeasy Stages Brilliant ‘Color Purple’ (5 Stars)

by Claudia A. Fox Tree

THE COLOR PURPLE – Based on the Alice Walker novel ‘The Color Purple’; Music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Choreography by Christian Bufford; Music direction by Nicholas James Connell. Produced by The SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Virginia Wimberly Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston through Feb. 8th.

You might think you know THE COLOR PURPLE because you’ve seen the film, but you haven’t really seen it until you’ve experienced this musical comedy version. And this is not a parody.  I know it sounds incongruous because the story of a fourteen-year-old African American girl named Celie being raped, having her children taken away, forcibly separated from her loving sister, and being required to marry into a life of incredible hardship is in no way funny, but that is only part of who Celie is, and much of this exposition happens in the first fifteen minutes of the production. How Celie lives, loves, and learns to enjoy life is a sweeping saga of determination, perseverance, and finding one’s voice and inner beauty. The ensemble croons, “the Lord works in mysterious ways,” in the opening song, foreshadowing that there is more to Miss Celie’s life than meets the eye.  Her love story is peppered with humor and, surprisingly, it translates into a musical comedy!  Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy’s Founder and Producing Artistic Director, directs this fantastic Broadway musical now playing at the Calderwood Pavilion, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture. 
Upon entering this intimate theater, faux corrugated metal “curtains” frame the production, giving the set an air of poverty, if not an outright destitute homestead covered by a tin roof.  An enormous tree with seven large branches dominates the set and every scene.  Its thick roots bend and twist around the stage. One line from the show celebrates a theme that “even the smallest seed can make a mighty tree” and we are left to imagine how this will be for our protagonist.  In the beginning, a young Celie (Akiah Doyle) and her sister, Nettie (Xikiyah Firmin), play a pat-a-cake hand game under the shade of this tree.  They morph into the older Celie (Lovely Hoffman) and Nettie (Aubin Wise) and the story unfolds with Celie’s marriage to Mister (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and the clever lyrics, “If you think hard work has been doggin’ you before, get ready for the big dog.”  I loved this number.  The men in the ensemble were fantastic and the lighting highlighted their strength while they walked up and down the ramp as “field hands” in the back of the stage behind the tree.  The theatrical numbers did not tend to be long, flamboyant singing and dancing routines with sequined costumes. Instead they were short, clear, real life, ceiling busting songs from the heart that sometimes ended in a tableau (standing frozen) looking like a postcard or famous paintings with the light creating deep burnished colors and shadows. 
The symbolism appearing in this production is reinforced through music and song.  There’s a mailbox, almost glowing, standing as sentinel in a prominent corner, reminding us that Celie is not allowed to touch it and therefore has no connection with the family that has been taken from her. She does not even know if they are still alive. But a mailbox is more than a symbol of connection with the outside world, it signifies a post slavery world where African American people are now allowed to read and write, and yet it is being denied to Celie.  The three “church ladies” (Carolyn Saxon, Anich D’Jae, Taylor Washington) are background singers who remind me of the doo wop girls in the “Little Shop of Horrors”.  They move the story forward through music while adding to the drama with idle gossip.  They alert viewers to what is happening off stage or as time passes and the scenes shift, and they bring on the ragtime and blues.  The church ladies sing of God and Celie prays to God, but Celie also makes us laugh by asking, “What kind of god are you?” and saying, “If God ever listened to a poor colored woman, the world would be different” and that “God is just another man as far as I’m concerned.”  It is Shug Avery (Crystin Gilmore) who answers Celie’s prayers, “God is taking his time.”
There are many references to Shug Avery, Mister’s long time love interest, and her “big personality.”  It’s a treat when we finally meet her, but she is drop dead drunk.  Celie nurses Shug and eventually they learn to love each other.  Shug’s singing numbers bring on the glitz and jazz when she performs at the “Juke Joint” that is the pride and joy of Harpo (Jared Dixon), Mister’s son.  There is a lot of who is doing the “hoochie coochie” with whom. Harpo has married, and lost, Sofia (Valerie Houston), the role played by Oprah Winfrey in the film (Whoopi Goldberg played Celie).  He is now together with Squeak (Anich D’Jae) running his business under that tall tree. Later, Harpo and Sofia make up to “Anything I Can Do For You” with its funky beats. His Juke joint is emphasized because they were an important, secret establishment in the South that allowed African American artists to hone their skills and invent music and dance without repercussions from the dominant white society. I enjoyed seeing the ensemble of women who ranged in size, skin coloring, and hair texture.  It was great to see this story translated into a theatrical production that tells a part of the true and real story of African American survival. 
The second act is set in motion when Shug, who has free run of the household, finally connects Celie with the letters that she has never received. In Act I, Celie proclaims, “You could put everything I know into a thimble.”  In Act II, Celie’s world expands and travels from Africa back to her home.  It is not only Celie’s story of redemption, but also Mister’s chance to fix what he has messed up.  In his amends, he asks himself, ‘How can a man do good when all he knows is bad?”  This critical part of the story was left out of the movie, and it closes the circle of Celie’s life in a peaceful and beautiful way.
The songs speak for themselves as they tell the story of outspoken Sofia (“Hell, No!”), and the business that Celie establishes when she finally leaves Mister and eventually inherits the family home (“Miss Celie’s Pants”). They are funny and playful – here’s the comedy shining through the tragedy.  I was so emotionally invested in the life of Celie that when she says, “I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, but I am here,” my skin prickled with happiness that she was speaking up for herself, taking cues from Sofia and Shug.
THE COLOR PURPLE is a musical that features the book version by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The lead, Lovely Hoffman, is a Boston College graduate with degrees in Political Science and Secondary Education. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Boston has a thriving and wonderful theater scene with a variety of venues, a range of admission prices, and terrific, intelligent local talent.  This show is rich with culture and history. While brief nudity, explicit language, and the nature of the content, may lend it to not being “family friendly” show, that did not stop folks from bringing young children of eight or nine to the production.  If African American history (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is already being talked about in one’s home, then this is a show that can probably be shared with all family members, especially to illustrate resilience, but you know your own family best.  My sixteen-year-old who never heard of THE COLOR PURPLE, did not want a tissue as we entered the theater, saying, “I won’t cry,” but tears were rolling down her face when Hoffman’s character exclaimed, “I AM beautiful” at the end of Act II. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=showpage&page=purple