The Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve bring ‘The Colour Purple’ to the stage, an inspiring musical based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker.
We follow heroine Celie who, a victim of racism, sexism, and physical abuse, finds a strength in the powerful women around her, and undergoes a personal awakening as she discovers her own strength, voice, and beauty.
Directed by Tinuke Craig, with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the musical’s evocative score draws inspiration from jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues, with a narrative that inspires, encourages and empowers everybody to be unashamedly, unapologetically themselves.
When we are first introduced to Celie, she is a girl of just 14 years of age. Yet, tragically, she is already a victim of rape, and has borne two children – daughter Olivia and son Adam – to her abusive step-father, who took both children from her and gave them away. Unable to have any more children, Celie vows to always care for her younger sister Nettie. Celie is married off to widow Mister Johnson, once more becoming trapped in an abusive relationship. On meeting two women, the no-nonsense Sophia and the straight-talking Shug Avery, Celie is inspired to stand up for, and believe in, herself.
The cast, as individuals and one collective, are outstanding, each member clearly pouring heart and soul into a production that continues to be significantly relevant. Their words, their voices, are so full of meaning, determination, resistance and resolve, one cannot fail to be moved by the outpouring of emotion that emanates from each and every member. Their flawless vocals provide an audible treat, the synchronisation of multiple vocals resulting in flawless harmonies that, whilst each member of the cast retains their own unique individuality, allows them to grasp hold of an equality that sees them all shine as one.
T’Shan Williams is magnificent as Celie. Just 14 years old when we meet her, the character is notable for her naivety and innocence, and she stands meekly on the stage fiddling with the edges of her dress. Throughout the production, Celie’s appearance changes slightly to give the impression of her advancing years. Along with this, some of her mannerisms, her habits, even her voice, adapts too, demonstrating how the character gains a maturity here in terms of identity and sexuality.
Mistreated all her life, and never the subject of kindness or compassion (apart from that demonstrated by her sister), for Celie, violence and abuse seem to be the norm, and she therefore doesn’t question others’ treatment of her as she doesn’t expect anything better. Disillusioned by this, when Harpo asks her advice concerning his desire to exercise a measure of dominance over Sophia, Celie states, and sincerely appears to believe, that he must beat her into submission.
Celie has been used and abused, victimised and objectified, and frequently told that she is ugly, so much so that she believes it. In the face of outrageous demands from her husband Mister, as when he barks that his lemonade is not cold enough, Celie jumps to attend to his every whim and fancy. On meeting Sophia and Shug Avery, both of whom are fierce and feisty, modern women with modern values, both inherently dominant, and admirably unwilling to relinquish such dominance, Celie’s outlook is changed, and the two women help her gain a clarity that inspires her to believe in herself, to recognise her beauty, her abilities, and her voice.
Williams’ performance is one of such skill, that she is able to draw from the audience such varied emotion – from shattering sympathy intermittently throughout the production, to a fierce sense of pride and uncontainable joy that results in a collective whooping and clapping when she finally stands up to Mister, and makes her own way in the world.
Williams’ rendition of song ‘I’m Here’ at the close of the production is breathtaking, and we understand that this song is not just for her, but for all those victims of rape, abuse and domestic violence, and for all those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, the bitter sting of racism, sexism, and inequality in today’s unequal world, and in her performance, she urges us with every fibre of her being to love ourselves.
Danielle Fiamanya gives a fantastic and equally heartrending performance as Celie’s younger sister Nettie. Though the younger of the two, Nettie seems to possess a strength Celie initially lacks, and questions why she allows men, particularly their Pa, to treat her as they do, and she fights back when Mister propositions her. When her and Celie are separated, Nettie vows to write to her everyday, and part of the musical takes on an epistolary form as the two vocalise their letters to each other. Whilst people come and go in Celie’s life, the one thing that is constant and stable is the relationship between these two sisters – despite everything, no matter where life takes them, their bond is never broken, and their familial love is one that triumphs.
Ako Mitchell plays an unpleasant character with Mister, and there is a harsh brutality in his attitude towards, and subsequent treatment of, women. As a man, he comes with an automatic sense of entitlement and superiority, and sees women as little better than animals. He tells his son Harpo to beat Sophia, viewing it as weak for a man to take orders from a woman. Initially wanting to marry Nettie, and frequently calling Celie ugly, he doesn’t realise what he has until she walks away. On realising, he seems to become sensitive, compassionate, apologetic even, and pursues a friendship with Celie after she rejects his proposal.
Joanna Francis’ sultry and seductive blues singer Shug Avery is first introduced to us as Mister’s lover. When she stays at his residence to overcome an illness, however, she becomes firm friends, and eventually lovers, with Celie. Acting as a mentor to Celie, Shug guides her on a path to assertiveness and independence, ultimately leading her towards a future where she becomes successful, self-reliant, financially stable, and truly happy.
Karen Mavundukure is delightful as the fabulously feisty and funny Sophia. Undoubtedly the wearer of the trousers in her relationship, she runs a matriarchal household, and is greatly admired by Celie (and the audience), who draws on her strength.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden is more sensitive, kinder and understanding as Mister’s son Harpo, content to listen to and obey his wife Sophia – content until, that is, his father challenges this. Harpo recognises the value of women, however, and allows for the continued empowerment of his wife.
A very special mention must also go to Danielle Kassarate (Doris), Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah (Darlene) and Landi Oshinowo (Jarene), whose chorus roles saw them comment on the action unfolding, guiding the narrative, their performances tirelessly spirited, soulful, and sassy.
The staple set depicts a large residential structure, with panels lifting to reveal different rooms beneath. A fixed point, Celie is anchored, chained, to her life here, with no freedom offered and a lack of movement. By placing this structure towards the front of the stage, masking the depth of the space, the characters are placed closer to the audience, who more easily invest as a result of this intimacy. The rich and varied colour pallette, with a predominant purple lighting, and a frequent naturally-themed projection on the back wall of the structure, create an authenticity whilst again drawing out audience emotion.
A bold and striking production, ‘The Colour Purple’ also bears an added tenderness, notable in its respectful approach to the delicate, controversial subject matter that saw the book banned several times. The perfect balance is struck here in that, whilst we are not made to squirm uncomfortably in our seats, the story’s themes are still potent, affecting audience members who invest in these worthy characters. Thus, focus is not lumbered upon suffering, but rather on personal growth and development, upon endurance and resolution, upon love and family.
With its well-written dialogue and perfectly formed songs, the fleshy narrative of this musical captures the very essence of the story-line, commenting upon and representing difficult themes such as racism, sexism, incest, rape, abuse and domestic violence. However, the production is surprisingly funny, and very beautiful. Too beautiful for words.
Like a rising sun, this show establishes an increasing hope that sets us free from the injustices and inequalities of this world. The voices of these characters join together to create a harmony that will not go unnoticed.
More than worthy of standing up alongside its award-winning novel counterpart, we can only hope that this production receives the UK tour and West End transfer it so richly deserves.