“God just another man, far as I'm concerned,” sputters Celie, the main character of “The Color Purple,” whose pain and suffering overflows into anger. “He triflin' and lowdown.”
It’s easy to understand her resentment — Celie has been physically and sexually abused by her father, passed off to a husband who does the same, has her children taken from her, and loses her only sister, now presumed dead.
But before the final curtain falls, Celie finds redemption.
In a spiritually moving gospel and blues-inspired production, “The Color Purple” (through Sunday, Feb. 25 at the Saenger Theater) shines a light not just on Celie, but on an entire African-American community in early 20th-century Georgia struggling to to find their way out from under the still-looming shadow of slavery.
Based on Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel, the stage adaptation of “The Color Purple” is written by Marsha Norman (“‘night, Mother”), with music and lyrics by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis. The touring production of the 2015 Broadway revival—which won a Tony Award for Best Revival and earned another for Cynthia Erivo in the role of Celie—is directed by John Doyle, who delivers a show that passes through darkness and anguish before bursting into a promise of many-splendored joy.
While Celie (Adrianna Hicks) is at the center of “The Color Purple,” she’s surrounded by characters that often define who she is and, perhaps more significantly, who she is not. It’s Pa and her husband Mister (in a booming performance by Gavin Gregory) who dictate the small ugliness of Celie’s early existence, but it’s the strong women in her life that model an alternative.
Sofia, married to Mister’s son Harpo, is a powerhouse who nearly steals the show. Played by Carrie Compere, Sofia takes no stuff from nobody, and her big number--the bluesy, slow burning “Hell No!” that builds to a gospel stomp--is a showstopping warning to any man who dares raise a hand in her direction.
And then there’s Shug Avery, Mister’s mistress, a nightclub singer from Memphis who drops in and stays a while. She refuses to bend to Mister’s will and convinces Celie that she shouldn’t either. As Shug, Carla R. Stewart is a fine performer who coaxes compassion from desire. “Push da Button” is her lusty nightclub number, though the vocal performance doesn’t quite reach the fervent peaks of Compere’s “Hell No!” before it.
The story stretches from 1909 to 1949, and in that span of 40 years, it’s not just the people that change, it’s also the times. From Mister’s father, who was born into the hard confinement of slavery, to Celie, who evolves from a frightened child into a strong woman capable of providing for herself, it’s a painful path, physically and emotionally, but one that ultimately leads to new growth.
Doyle’s set design is effectively simple, relying on a backdrop of scrap wood to evoke the time and place. The only props are basic wooden chairs, used to suggest everything from the barroom to a jailhouse. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are also effective, including turn-of-the-century rural sack dresses and the brightly colored pants that signify a new era of womanhood.
The show isn’t perfect — the quick-fire exposition in the beginning sacrifices rich story development, and Hicks, as Celie, lacks some emotional depth in the early scenes of hardship — but when it gets cooking, particularly in the second act, “The Color Purple” is a soaring testament to perseverance.
Celie’s closing number, “I’m Here,” is a grand finale, an emotionally raw reclamation of self from an invisible woman once derided for being poor, black, and ugly, but who now declares, “I’m beautiful, and I’m here.”
WHEN: Feb. 20-25
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal Street
TICKETS: Starting at $30
INFO: www.BroadwayInNewOrleans.com or (800) 982-2787