Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, set in America’s deep south during the early 20th century, comes with a long list of trigger warnings: incest, rape, domestic abuse, indeed all kinds of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse including, overt racism, and sexism. It’s hard to imagine such a brutal world brought to life as a musical.
The violence and oppression experienced by the story’s female characters seems at odds with the joyous images of the musical’s advertising. But perhaps the real success of this stage-adaptation by Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winner Marsha Norman, is its deeper dive into the core of the story, pulling out the hope at its heart and setting it centre stage.
The musical opens with a roof-raising, arm-waving, gospel song, setting the tone for the evening with Grammy award-winners Allee Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray’s uplifting score riding the audience through this tumultuous wave of emotion with a steady steer of strength. Taking inspiration from gospel, jazz, ragtime and blues, the songs are a musical response to the pain that reaffirms the power of the human spirit. Does that mean some of the tougher issues are sometimes glossed over? Yes, it does. But they are not erased, and what’s left is a powerful triumph over adversity tale that lifts in the way a good musical should.
The story of The Color Purple is a complex family saga spanning over 40 years, through which the stage version takes us on a whistle-stop tour with three gossiping churchgoers filling us in on events that take place off stage. Life is bleak for young Celie whose lack of money and education leaves her life in the fate of bullying and abusive men around her. When we meet her at age 14, Celie has two children by her father who took them from her at birth, she doesn’t know where. Soon to marry a whip-wielding man she knows only as ‘Mister’, it’s clear Celie’s adult life will not be any easier.
On stage for almost the whole performance, Me’sha Bryan gives a powerhouse performance as Celie, ranging from understated vulnerability to steely resolve that has the audience hollering from their seats to cheer her on as she grows from abused child to empowered woman. Her final solo number, ‘I’m Here’ is a celebration of life itself.
Bryan is supported by a strong cast, particularly Anelisa Lamola, who commands attention as feisty Sofia, the role played by Oprah Winfrey in the 1985 movie.
By the end there are tears, cheers and a full-house standing ovation.