Abuse, suffering, pain and hardship: The musical!

By Tatiana Craine

Dear God, I am 14 years old. I have been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me. The words hung ominously above the stage, painted in curled letters across the backdrop.I sat in my seat and wondered how on earth a musical theater adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, intensely emotional novel would pan out. Yet, as the lights shone dimly upon two girls playing a clapping game-their silhouettes bouncing in the faux twilight-I was hurtled into the deep American south and my skepticism disappeared.

The year is 1909. Celie and her sister Nettie are playing and singing together on a footbridge. In town, the church-going ladies wonder about poor, pregnant Celie and the father of her child-who is in fact, her own father. Celie’s days of innocence are long over, and soon she is forced to give up her child and marry an abusive man. Her husband, Mister, tries to prey upon Nettie and eventually forbids the sisters to see each other ever again under the threat of death. Mister’s son, Harpo, has just married a rough-and-tough girl from town named Sofia. Celia and Sofia quickly bond and boost each other’s spirits when times (and husbands) get rough. The arrival of Shug Avery, Mister’s longtime love, puts the town into frenzy. Shug, the embodiment of sex appeal, becomes Celie’s unlikely friend, giving the girl insight into her own inner beauty. The rest of the production follows Celie and the townspeople over forty years as she broadens her horizons and realizes that all the love she needs is buried deep inside.

The heart and soul of this production is, without a doubt, carried upon the shoulders of Kenita R. Miller. What Miller lacks in stature, she makes up for with the strength of her voice. Miller’s rendition of “Somebody Gonna Love You,” the song Celie sings to her newborn child, immediately commands the audience’s attention. Miller’s performance combines heart and soul with spunk and gumption to make the perfect Celie: a strong, forgiving woman. The graceful energy and intensity of Miller’s performance help her flawlessly transform Celie over four decades.

The heavy subjects confronted in Walker’s novel might have been too much for the musical stage without the comic relief provided by Sofia. Felicia P. Fields’s performance as the stubbornly independent woman is both hilarious and bittersweet. From her first moments on stage to her rousing performance of “Hell No,” Fields’s embodiment of a willful and liberated woman had audience members clapping in approval at the performance I attended.

“The Color Purple” could not have been so effective without behind-the-scenes talent involved. John Lee Beatty’s scenic design is coupled perfectly with Brian MacDevitts’s lighting design to thrust audiences into the show’s pivotal moments. With MacDevitt’s lights, the sets really come alive; scenes that might have been simplistic and quaint were suddenly dreamlike under the lighting, filled with the warm and languid liveliness of Celie’s town. Silhouettes play an important role, lending a sense of old Americana while casting light and shadows upon characters in the right and in the wrong.

The most resounding moments in “The Color Purple” showcase the talents of the entire cast. The vibrant and pulsating energy of a juke joint is brought to the stage during “Push Da Button” and “Uh Oh!” Each of the cast members has his or her moment to shine and let loose, to whoop and holler and to get the audience partying in their seats. Scenes taking place on the other end of the world are equally entertaining, with balletic movements and dancing representative of a tribe in Africa during “African Homeland.”

“The Color Purple” does what it sets out to do: the messages of love, forgiveness, and independence resonated with me long after the curtains closed. I found myself wishing I could be as resilient and forgiving as Celie. At this production, we are transported to a time far different than our own, and despite the hardships that Alice Walker’s characters go through, the production leaves us with light hearts.

Upon the last few notes of the final song, the audience I saw the show with leapt to its feet and applauded-a fitting testament to the splendor and compassion we had just witnessed on stage.

“The Color Purple” is showing at the Ordway Center through March 29.

Article reprinted with permission from the Twin Cities Daily Planet.