Director: Tinuke Craig
Book: Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
In a new digital version, created especially for the home audience, the Tony Award-winning musical The Color Purple returns to the stage.
The Color Purple (based on the novel by Alice Walker) tells the story of Celie; a young woman living in Georgia during the early part of the 20th century. In theory, the novel doesn’t lend itself to musical theatre – Walker’s book frankly depicts layers of oppression and misogyny. But in the creative team of Brenda Russell, Marsha Norman, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, an adaptation was found that managed to stay true to the spirit of Walker’s text, with a richly evocative musical that got everyone’s attention.
In the first scene, it’s a Sunday morning and we see Celie (played by T’Shan Williams) hurrying to church with her younger sister, Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya). With their father walking on ahead, Celie has to pause and rest. Aged 14, she is pregnant with her second child.
The musical quickly sets up the world that Celie and Nettie inhabit. The ensemble fill the stage in their Sunday best, and in a recurring motif, the town gossips Doris, Darlene and Jarene (a fabulous Danielle Kassarate, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah and Landi Oshinowo) appear as a Greek Chorus, mulling on Celie’s pregnancy – who could the father be?
As Celie is abruptly handed over to a shadowy figure, Mister (Ako Mitchell) her days become a repeat cycle of drudgery and abuse. Celie’s life only begins to change when a local girl-made-good, Shug Avery, returns to town. Singing at the bar set up by Mister’s son, Harpo, Avery (an excellent Carly Mercedes Dyer) stuns Celie. Fiercely independent and sexually unapologetic, Celie finds herself having feelings for Avery that are hard to explain away.
Dealing with the weightiness of Walker’s novel, the music and lyrics of The Color Purple dig deep into African-American culture. We move from gospel, to jazz and ragtime. This is music raising people’s voices when no other source of power was available to them. As Celie, T’Shan Williams delivers a galvanising performance: the strength of Williams’ voice is no surprise to anyone familiar with her work, but the ability to hold us in quieter moments is seriously impressive. The simple authority of Celie, unknown even to herself, is pitched perfectly.
This is an ensemble piece, and there are no weak spots. As Avery, Carly Mercedes Dyer creates one of the standout moments with the set piece, Push the Button. But she isn’t Celie’s first glimpse of emancipation: as Harpo’s wife, Sofia (Karen Mavundukure) is bright, bold and doesn’t take any nonsense. The musical leans into the relationships Celie has with other women – platonic, intimate – that shape who she finally becomes.
While other digital versions of musicals can feel truncated – the sparseness of the stage, the empty seats, just enhance what we’re missing – The Color Purple is filmed in the round, meaning that there is no wasted space. The camera also mingles with the cast, ensuring a fully immersive experience. We crouch behind Nettie as she addresses Mister; Shug wows the home crowd – and catches our eye.
The Color Purple treads carefully between the serious issues raised in Alice Walker’s novel and the joyful, uplifting tones that let this musical shine. There is a perception that an empty theatre can’t really capture the feel of a live experience, but The Color Purple gives us emotion and spectacle played up close – nothing is lost. This may be theatre born out of crisis, but this performance is an electrifying reminder that the best material doesn’t just survive, it evolves.
Available here until Sunday 7 March 2021