Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Brett Beiner Photography.
Overall, Broadway musicals have been a historically white medium. Though Porgy and Bess is generally seen as a classic, in the decades since we have witnessed only a small percentage of musicals that show the Black experience in America. The vast majority of these are told from the male perspective; there are still very few musicals about the authentic Black female experience. That is one of the things that sets The Color Purple apart.
The musical version of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells a story focused on Black American women and it doesn’t pull any punches: we are witness to at least the effects of child and spousal abuse, violence from the white world, toxic masculinity, and other daily horrors that were part of their daily struggle, especially in the early parts of the 20th Century. One of the things that distinguishes this brilliant show, though, is its positivity and its unrelenting focus on love and spirituality as healing forces. This is the prism through which Drury Lane Theatre’s production sees the show and the world. Directed lovingly by Lili-Anne Brown, this is one of the most uplifting shows you would want to see as well as one of the best that this award-winning theatre has put on.
The Color Purple focuses on the character of Celie, played with amazing grace and power by Eben K. Logan, as she navigates the seemingly unending trials of her life by holding on to her deep love for her sister Nettie (Kyrie Courter, whose performance, especially in Act Two, is excellent) and the children she had from being raped by her stepfather. The fact that she never sees any of these people notwithstanding, Celie loves them all fiercely, clinging to the belief that all remain, despite the odds, alive and well.
Celie has been handed off in marriage to Mister (an imposing Melvin Abston), who wants her basically to clean his house and take care of his children. He is not at all averse to beating her when she is less than perfect (though this all occurs offstage) and constantly tells her how “ugly” she is. But Celie’s temperament is indomitable: she may meekly submit to her much stronger husband’s demands, but she remains faithful to the power of love even when at times she is sure that God has forsaken her. And indeed it is love that is her salvation, found in the most unusual way.
Mister has held a long-term crush on blues singer Shug Avery (played with passion by Sydney Charles) from way before he married Celie, and he finally finds the opportunity to bring her into his house when she suffers an illness while in town for an engagement. As Celie gently nurtures Shug back to health, the two women discover a powerful spiritual love for each other. Shug helps Celie once again to believe that such things are possible and empowers her as she seeks to gain some measure of control over her life.
The powerful focus of Logan’s performance demands attention even when Celie is forced into the meek and subservient role: watch her hands, her face, and her body language as the character begins to discover that there is more to life than what it has brought to her. She is especially great in a scene in which she is not at all the focus, a scene involving Shug singing at a juke joint owned by Mister’s son Harpo (Gilbert Domally). Here Celie, who remains constantly in the background of the scene and completely apart from its choreography and music, undergoes a kind of transformation while experiencing the joy that her peers find in their lives. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Charles in this scene, but it’s worth it to see what Logan is doing.
Another powerful performance is that of Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia, the big, bold woman whom Harpo falls for (to the chagrin of his father, who sees him as less than a man for not being able to control his wife). Haskins commands the stage and her “Hell, No,” a witness to her determination not to be controlled by anyone, is as much of a first act highlight as Charles’ “Push Da Button” or the tender duet that is shared by Shug and Celie, “What About Love?” which highlights Brown’s directorial guidance as these two women find something missing from both of their lives.
Brown is aided nicely by inventive and enjoyable choreography from Breon Arzell and musical direction from Jermaine Hill, who has the pleasure of working with several vocally stunning actors (including the surprisingly dynamic Logan). Arnel Sancianco’s set, coupled with Cat Wilson’s lighting, effectively conjures the era and provides multiple levels for performance, and Jaret Landon’s small orchestra is outstanding.
This is a play that ultimately celebrates the potent forces of love and spirituality, which Celie finds in her life despite all of the darkness that befalls her. When she looks at herself in a mirror and declares, “I am beautiful,” it doesn’t erase the suffering she has done, but it shows her overcoming the pain. With the help of her sister, her friends, and even Mister, she succeeds in finding joy in a world that too often has taken it away from her. Her journey reflects both the struggles of Black American women and the unyielding faith that things can be better, even if it sometimes seems that everything, including God, has left you behind.
The Color Purple is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Oct 26. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.