There are a number of reasons to commend Anthony Bean Community Theater’s production of “The Color Purple.” The 21-member cast is exceptionally committed, the choreography is joyously executed and the play’s examination of one black woman’s journey out of oppression into self-actualization is a positive tale worth sharing. Director Anthony Bean is to be applauded for taking on such an ambitious project.
On the other hand, the show is flawed by technical problems and some poor choices. It’s to be hoped that these issues can be corrected before “Purple” ends its run June 14.
Set mainly in rural Georgia in the 1930s, “The Color Purple” tells the story of Celie and her struggle for power in a world ruled by racism, sexism and patriarchy. By the age of 14, Celie has given birth to her second child, fathered by her abusive stepfather.
Told by family and friends that she is ugly and no more important than a cow, she is sold by her stepfather to “Mister.”
Now separated from her beloved sister, Nettie, Celie settles into a life barely worth living. It is not until she meets Shug Avery, a honky-tonk singer, that she begins to feel beautiful and deserving.
Author Alice Walker was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the renowned novel on which the play is based. The book became a film directed by Steven Spielberg, and in 2005, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones turned it into a musical and brought it to Broadway.
The play features music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman. The show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2006.
Bean’s direction of the play is valiant, but the production is fraught with technical problems.
The lighting is not effective, as actors and ensemble members were often poorly illuminated or sadly not illuminated at all.
The sound is also problematic. The volume is set too loud, so it distorts many of the vocals, making several of the musical numbers painful to the ear. The frequent blare of feedback and the mic levels fluctuating from barely audible to plug-your-ears loud undermined the actors’ best efforts. (All of Bean’s actors have voices strong enough not to need any amplification at all.)
But the hardest thing to endure was Bean’s decision to change scenery during the play’s action. The worst offense was when Shug is singing “Too Beautiful for Words” to Celie downstage, and upstage the stage crew is quite visibly and very loudly setting up the next scene.
But in the spirit of the play’s guiding sentiment, “that it pisses God off when you walk by purple in a field and don’t notice,” it would be wrong to overlook the many good things that happened on stage.
The show’s shining star is Jade Hillery. As Sofia, the part that earned the Oscar for Oprah Winfrey, Hillery’s performance is perfection. From her brilliant flat-footed walk to her rich and powerful voice, she is a sheer joy. Her rendition of “Hell No” hits the mark, and her duet “Any Little Thing” with Harpo, played by DC Paul with confidence, endearing humor and professionalism, was the single best moment in the play.
Also to be praised is the trio of church ladies: Allieta Blue, Jewel Mart and Nechele Francis, who serve as the play’s Greek chorus. They bring so much sass and humor to their roles that you begin to smile the minute they hit the stage.
Asia Nelson is on target as she portrays the timid and cowering Celie.
Damien Moses is effective as the brutal Mister and Tomeka Williams is fun to watch as she effortlessly embodies Shug’s earthy sexuality.
Wanda B. Bryant’s costuming enhances the production as she captures the time period and nails everything from the church ladies’ extravagant church hats to Shug Avery’s stunning dresses.
But it is the choreography that will be most remembered. Giselle Nakhid, who also plays Nettie, gets the very best out of her dancers. Both “Push Da Button” and “Brown Betty” are exhilarating.
And Michael Lafayette is a standout, with his high-flying acrobatic dance moves and charismatic stage presence.