Presented by the Boch Center
Book Written by Alice Walker
Musical Adapted by Marsha Norman
Music by Brenda Russell and Allee Willis
Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight
“I believe…as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” -C.S. Lewis
(Downtown Boston, Massachusetts) Dear stars and dear trees: For all of my life, I’d been closeted about my consumption of musicals. But after witnessing the musical revival of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie and Sophie have officially folded me into musical theatre, and I want to stay swaddled in the feeling of this lively genre. I can tell I am swooning over this Broadway show the way all firsts captivate you – your first kiss, your first live music concert, your first adult job, and your first Broadway musical.
I have seen musicals before. I can sing along during all the songs of White Christmas. What was novel about The Color Purple was its emotional pull on me. With tears in my eyes, I gazed at my psychological sisters on stage, and I was affirmed. The Color Purple asked you, “What do you want?” and I scrambled to answer this question before this special once-in-a-lifetime performance was over. I heard my evolving superego declare, “In this life you wanna be nothing but a Black woman writer artist, and this play has brought this home for you.” I looked around the salt and pepper audience, yearning for more Black youth to be in those seats: Black children and teenagers in the midst of figuring out what they want.
Working to manifest hopes and waiting for prayers to come true can take decades. That’s why I surmise Marsha Norman spread out her musical adaptation over thirty years, from 1909 to 1949. Thing is, the high points of that journey can be exhilarating, and the jazzier songs in The Color Purple’s score were a consummate soundtrack for when a relationship dynamic finally shifts to that better place (Celie and Albert), or when someone who was violent toward you finally apologizes (Celie and Albert), or when an abused woman finally says enough is enough (Sophia to Celie).
Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray were duly nominated in the category of Best Original Score. For a story that chronicled hardship, there were R&B tunes like The Color Purple Reprise at the end of the show — with its twinkling keyboard, and its soft support from saxophones and drums. The ensemble of the sweetly resilient Reprise rose in harmony, moving my hands to clasp at my chest, causing tears to roll down my cheeks.
Watching this musical as an adult (rather than as a kid watching the film) this time the experience of the story became holding love for Celie that equated my aspirational hope for all Black American women. If I sound like Oprah, please remember that Oprah has a history of executive producing this Broadway venture. I also thought about Whitney Houston, who was abused differently from Celie, but still abused by her spouse and the industry. With Whitney a fallen heroine, then I thought of Michelle Obama who superseded the role of First Lady to cultural icon, so there was the spectrum at the front of my mind, and I found myself loving Celie and The Color Purple Reprise as an anthem for women who trace their roots down the American South: “Dear People/God is inside of me and everyone else/and when I finally look inside, I found it/Like the sun Is the hope that sets us free/Your heart beat make my heart beat when we share love.” Then the symbolism of Celie universalized to loving relationships with everyone. Before Adrianna Hicks had finished singing the Reprise, we in the audience were hammering our hands together, and I am certain I was the first patron in the orchestra section to jump to their feet.
It’s church, baby, and don’t confuse it for anything else. Attend The Color Purple expecting a story about the friendship between women and, especially for women with long and passionate relationships with other women, expect the portrayal those friendships to feel particularly poignant. I took my friend Iryn to this performance and, at one point, I looked over at Iryn and knew she was the best person to bring to this play with me. Iryn has been there for significant life moments. I consult her before making the most important moves, and she was the friend who should have been sharing this evening with me. In the dark, stealing a glance at Iryn, I felt affirmed again by The Color Purple; affirmed in my deep sister love for Iryn. At another moment, I wondered why The Color Purple isn’t much more of an emblem for love between women: sister love, as well as womanist and lesbian love. It should be, or at least it could be.
The resounding echo from this Broadway phenomenon is unanimous praise buttressed by anecdotes about someone’s daughter, a story about someone else’s mother, and always accolades the singers. Just take a minute to poke around the Internet, and then splurge on two tickets to this womanist love story.
In case you cannot to attend The Color Purple, my inner teacher is recommending books you could read:
- Baldwin’s Invisible Man, which makes a similar commentary on old-old-school misogynist men
- Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has same Southern sense of humor
- Alice Walker’s poems about her time in East Africa round out her American works. Read Once.
- Alice Walker’s prose In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. In this book, Walker redefined the term womanist to mean a Black Feminist or Feminist of Color; a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. It is an unforgettable reading experience. Savor it.
- And of course, the novel which earned her a Pulitzer in 1983 — Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
We elected a thin-skinned Nazi to the office of the President who is turning our “democracy” into a fascist, totalitarian oligarchy dominated by the 1%. Trump is a monster. His policies, when he names them, are destructive. His narcissistic behavior is more so.
Congressional “negotiators” released a spending bill that saves the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and National Public Radio until September at which time, the President and his impotent cronies may still cut arts funding. It is ever important to remain vigilant. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD