Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Alice Walker
Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Director: Tinuke Craig
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Celie’s life has been hard and full of pain. By 14 she had two children by her abusive father who took both away. Then she found herself married off at 18 to the cruel local widower and farmer, ‘Mister’ – she preferred that to allow her younger sister Nettie to pursue her dreams of finishing college and become a teacher. But life in Mister’s household is hard, Celie is little more than a slave. And now she has lost the one person in the world whom she loves and who loves her – Nettie. Nettie arrived fleeing their father but Mister throws her out when she rejects his advances. Despite Nettie’s promises to write, Celie hasn’t heard from her for years. Then one of Mister’s old flames, blues singer, Shug – the love of his life, in fact, whom he was prevented from marrying by his own father because she was ‘easy’ – arrives. She agrees to sing in the new juke joint run by Mister’s son, Harpo. After that triumphant evening, Celie discovers love and affection for the first time with Shug and her life changes forever as she gradually takes control of her own destiny.
Most of the action in The Color Purple revolves around Celie in Georgia and the American south. But its themes are much bigger with many characters undergoing journeys from darkness towards the light. The Color Purple is, indeed, an epic tale set in a small world.
The set from designer Alex Lowde is simple and beautifully evokes the various locations as rooms slide in and out of a wooden screen. Exteriors are evoked using simple projections. This all enables the action to flow easily from location to location. This might all sound rather heavygoing; the themes in The Color Purple are certainly challenging and it is not always an easy watch. What one might not expect is the laugh-out-loud humour sprinkled around, for example, from the sassy chorus of churchwomen who comment on the action. Director, Tinuke Craig, makes sure that that we are carried forward by the story, ensuring each character is believable as a rounded human being, full of strengths and weaknesses, each uniquely flawed. She is truly a master of emotional manipulation – such is our empathy for every character we find ourselves sitting in emotional turmoil throughout.
Central is the character of Celie, played by T’Shan Williams. Williams allows Celie to grow gradually from the scared 14-year-old to put-upon wife and finally, via her epiphany with Shug, to her own woman. She commands the stage and has a strong vibrant voice. Her showstopper with Shug at the end of Act 1, What About Love?, leaves us drained for the interval.
Joanna Francis brings us the unapologetically imperfect Shug. She knows what she wants and goes all out to get it. Looked down on by the town for her lifestyle, she nevertheless finds her way into our hearts – and that of Celie.
Some light relief is brought to us by Karen Mavundukure as Sofia, Harpo’s wife. She gives us our first intimation that women don’t have to be downtrodden in this society, although she does find herself suffering for it – and we suffer alongside her; when Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) tries to beat Sofia into submission, she rebels and he looks to the wonderfully named Squeak (Pérola Congo) for comfort. Rhoden’s Harpo is brilliantly naïve and basically good-hearted at the beginning – his growth into maturity is a joy to watch. Congo brings a sense of joyous innocence to Squeak’s character while providing more laughs.
Perhaps the longest journey is that of Mister, played by Ako Mitchell. The son of an abusive ex-slave, he acts almost like the slave owners in his casual cruelty to his workers, wife and children. Even before his life starts to disintegrate, Mitchell’s nuanced performance forces us into a grudging empathy for him as we see the forces that have moulded him. Mitchell’s performance is a masterclass in acting. His song as he realises he is losing Celie, Mister’s Song, is both powerful and moving.
Every element of The Color Purple is perfect: expect a draining emotional rollercoaster with a cast of damaged characters for whom we root as they complete their personal odysseys. A must-see.
Runs Until 13 July 2019 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan