To understand THE PURPLE COLOR, in all its adaptations from book to film to stage, it must connect, not only with the history of African Americans, but also with the divinely inspired message of its author. Asked in a 2015 Huffington Post interview about her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Walker responded as follows:
“What I would like people to understand when they read The purple color, is that there are all these terrible things that can actually happen to us, and yet life is so incredibly magical and abundant and present that we can still be very happy… that the beauty of nature is what reminds us of what is divine, I mean, that we are already in heaven, really. It’s just that we haven’t noticed it, and we’ve been hijacked by people who want us to believe what they’re selling us. But if you walk past the color purple in a field and don’t even notice it, why should you even be here on the planet? I mean, you should notice what’s here, because it’s wonderful and amazing and he loves you back by his beauty and by his scent or how he can love you back.”
“I want it to be an expression of the possibility of our absolute freedom. And especially our spiritual freedom. Because until the spirit is free, it is very difficult to free any other part. And we we desperately need to be freed from so many chains.”
Walker’s intent is echoed in Shug Avery’s conversation with Celie, whose twenty-five-year journey to self-realization and empowerment is chronicled in the musical: “It pisses God off if you pass by the color purple in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.”
Based on the novel Marsha Norman (‘night, mother, The secret garden, Madison County Bridges) wrote the book of the award-winning play, with music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Allee Wills and Brenda Russell.
Norman’s musical captures the essence of Walker’s vision and, in The Phoenix Theater Company’s current production of THE PURPLE COLORdirector Daryl Brooks has created a masterpiece of transcendent theater that embodies all the pain and spirit of a gospel-supported and resilient community and one of its children.
Against the backdrop of the textured curtains and rustic platforms of Douglas Clarke and the radiant lighting of Ashton Corey, a stunning cast of nineteen actors populate the rural Georgia community where Celie’s journey takes place during thirty-five years old. Kevin White’s six-man orchestra is outstanding, complementing the ensemble’s rich, rhythmic call and response and setting the pace for Rueben D. Echoles’ muscular choreography.
At the center of the set is Andrea Fleming whose portrayal of Celie rises to that of a dazzling performance of bravery. She is magnificent in the role, measuring the evolution of her character and her voice until the moment of her jubilant assertion of herself (I am here), his powerful voice rises to the sky and lifts the audience from their seats.
As she evolves from a teenager, having given birth to and abandoning two babies, then traded by her stepfather (AD Weaver) in an abusive marriage with Mister (Noah Lee Hayes), to a freelance seamstress, Fleming thrives in a force of nature.
In a tale steeped in the essence of family, Celie’s desire to reunite with her sister Nettie (Jonice Bernard), a bond severed by the time and space of an ocean, is part of a larger story of the Diaspora. This story becomes apparent when the stage turns to Africa and is adorned with the resplendent hues of the dashikis of Echoles, also a costume designer.
Likewise, the other residents of Celie’s community thrive ~ transforming over time, with each’s lives interconnected and influenced by the other. Among them are Mister Harpo’s son (Blu), his indomitable wife Sofia (Shaunice Maudlyn Alexander) and his mistress Squeak (Jari Haile).
If Mrs. Fleming’s force of nature has a counterpart, it’s in Meka King’s brilliant performance as Shug Avery, Mister’s flamboyant former mistress whose endearing relationship with Celie is a portal to the making of self of Celie.
The thing is, for every artist listed in this review ~ indeed, for every member of this remarkable company ~ mere superlatives are not enough. It is a production of extraordinary power, vitality and importance. Unequivocally, a must before it closes on May 1st.
THE PURPLE COLOR through May 1 at the Hormel Theater of the Phoenix Theater Company. (Duration ~ 2 hours, 10 minutes plus 15 minute intermission)
The Phoenix Theater Company~ 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ~ www.phoenixtheatre.com ~ 602-254-2151
Photo credit to Reg Madison Photography