The Color Purple
Trigger warning: Sexual violence, domestic abuse and racism.
The Color Purple follows the life of a young African American woman in the 1900s finding herself after enduring years of abuse. Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, The Color Purple delivers. The one of us who dislikes musicals due to the frequent song and dance about the mundane parts of life, was surprised at how engaging the songs were. The jazz, gospel and blues music are a vehicle for powerful emotions and drive the story to its next destination, similar to the Bollywood songs we both know and love. They also lighten the load that is the Color Purple, a story of oppressed young women, with its sexual violence, child and domestic abuse. We know of these events in the play but we don’t see it. A relief for those who are hesitant to watch the show due to potential triggers.
A key example of the light and heavy are the songs by the three unwise women, the Church Ladies serving as the Greek Chorus and town’s gossips. Their polyphonic singing gives a definite sense of “moshla” (or masala) “lagaya”, a Bengali expression describing the spice or controversy added at every stage of the grape vine. They taunt and judge Celie and we are amused by the way they do this. Lakesha Arie-Angelo and Tinuke Craig, co-directors, take us along for the ride rather than force us to immediately sympathise with Celie. We are there with her, navigating a life where emotional and physical abuse are normalised and ridiculed sometimes. Where you have to find joy where you can, and make light of the suffering.
The lighting and set design are simplistic to allow us to go on this journey with Celie. We are immersed in a field of faded purple and green, but are not distracted by it - Nature! It puts us at ease which explains why we are able to comfortably focus on the action. The carefully chosen objects on stage add to the early 20th century feel of the play. Another example of great set design is the speakeasy which highlights Shug Averys’ sensual body and movements. There’s extravagance to it but it’s understated. The play does not bring about forced highs and lows but focuses on the day-to-day joys and pains, the set design is part of this. It also allows the characters to take up space. Secondary or not, the specific movements of the characters are imprinted on our minds, leaving a lasting impression.
Each character played a part in Celie’s life, the women especially, inspiring her to love herself as they do her. Still relevant to today, it reminds us that as an oppressed group we have each other, even in the worst of times. Love is a prominent theme in the play, it shows rather than tells us to love our bodies. Although body diversity is not part of the story, as a friend and member of the audience reminded us that night, it’s just there to show us how sexy big women are. Sofia’s powerhouse of a body is not ridiculed in the scene where she fights with Squeak. She is an unforgettable love interest and real threat to dainty Squeak. Sofia’s role directly conflicts with the stereotype of women at the time, only shown as attractive if quiet and demure. She is physically and emotionally strong, both depicted as commendable traits. We loved this.
We also see self-love through the reclaiming of black history and African heritage. As Me’sha Bryan who plays Celie, says in her interview with us, black people are reminded to be proud of themselves whether through hairstyles or dress. There is a softness to the African scene, challenging the stereotype of native Africans as backwards, barbaric or aggressive. The costumes are striking and yet adds to the softness and allows the characters to sway along to the music. It’s a mesmerising scene. We also attribute softness to Celie’s voice which stays sweet and innocent throughout the musical, even after Me’sha had belted out a solo. This tone, potentially stunted from trauma and childhood abuse, is also a symbol of hope. It’s a great thing for Celie to preserve some innocence after what she had been through. She is resilient through it all and the play delivers on that hope.
This is a joint review of The Color Purple, The musical by two members of Glitter Cymru and Glitter Cymru International (GSI). The musical is a Curve Theatre and Birmingham Hippodrome production, and was performed at Wales Millennium Centre.
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