The greater the adversity, the greater the feeling of triumph in overcoming it.
That truism could be considered a lesson from the 1982 gut-punch of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker. But it’s definitely a statement on what Brittney James Crayton, who stars as Celie in the current production at Cutting Edge Theater in Slidell, has found for herself in the role.
Set in the 1930s, the audience meets Celie as an African-American teen who has already given birth to two children, fathered -- and then given away -- by the man she believes is her own father. Even that fact fails to reveal all the brutality, both physical and emotional, that fills her young life.
Celie's suffering intensifies when her beloved sister Nettie (played by Marquita Smooth-Sanders) must leave to avoid a similar fate.
The role of Celie is a difficult one. The actress must show an evolution from those downtrodden early days into a successful and confident woman at show's end.
It became very personal for Crayton.
"Suzanne (Stymiest, co-director) was frustrated," Crayton said. "I wasn’t giving that real emotion when I lost Nettie. I just lost my mom two years ago, at age 53. I still think about it and collapse into tears.
"I didn’t want to open that. ... I had locked it away."
The process of unlocking it brought catharsis, as well as some powerful acting.
"Suzanne and the whole cast were so patient with me. They helped me get through some things I hadn’t dealt with from my mom’s death.
"People would say, 'Brit you're doing such a good job.' You don’t understand. This is therapy. It's helping me deal with things I locked away."
She noted the parallels between life and art.
"Celie married Mister (played by Samuel R. Warren) so he wouldn’t marry Nettie. When he took her away (by forcing her to flee) Celie was completely destroyed. That’s how I felt when my mom died."
The loss tested her faith, just as Celie's was tested.
"God, you took the one person in the world who, when I came home, I was the entire world," Crayton said of her mother. "Now, who’s going to be my cheerleader? ... Who's going to be my critic? Who's going to love me unconditionally? I have nothing left."
A demanding rehearsal schedule, which began in October, on top of Crayton's full-time job teaching performing arts at Crocker College Prep in New Orleans and the classes she's taking to earn a master's in theater from Regent University, added to her emotional stress.
"I was so exhausted. I left there crying many days."
She credits Stymiest with helping her channel all those emotions into the role.
"I remember specifically that she had me remember how if felt when the doctor told me my mom died. How did your legs feel? How did your fingers feel? How did your body feel ... I remember hitting the ground and just rocking; crying so much I couldn’t cry anymore. And I wouldn’t have been able to relate the two if not for Ms. Suzanne."
And there was more to deal with from even further into Crayton's past.
As a child, Crayton said, she was picked on because of a severe skin condition. "When it started to go away at puberty, theater was my outlet. I was able to be a whole other person."
The role took her back to that earlier time as well.
"Suzanne was able to tap into it because, as Celie, you have to be very vulnerable and timid and go inside a little shell, and I haven’t been in a shell since I was 6. I wasn’t being as humble and quiet as I needed to be ... There's a place where they throw me to the ground. (Today's) Brittany wasn’t having that."
Co-director Brian Fontenot put it in perspective. "Brittney is the complete opposite of what that character is. She's long nails, loud, fun, self esteem, high on life. ... (Stymiest) had to make Brittany become meek and mild and timid to fill in the character. It was a lot of work.
"It is beautifully done. People will leave and say, 'I want to see it again.'"
The musical runs at Cutting Edge Theater, 767 Robert Blvd. in Slidell, through Feb. 9. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$35; call (985) 649-3727 or go to cuttingedgetheater.com.
While Stymiest helped guide Crayton through her character's extreme evolution, some other actors in the big cast of 24 needed different kinds of coaching.
“There are very limited roles for African-Americans in normal shows, and few shows that are all African-American,” as is "The Color Purple," Fontenot noted.
Staying true to the characters’ descriptions meant venturing outside the usual community theater circles and reaching out into the community at large.
“We reached out to our regular base of African-Americans and to churches around town. We reached out to people from New Orleans, Hammond, Ponchatoula, the Covington/Mandeville area. As soon as word hit the street, we had people knocking down the door,” Fontenot said.
The challenge came in working with all the various kinds of talent that came in that door.
“There were a lot of newbies in this productions, and we had to work a little harder. You might be a fabulous singer but not used to singing musicals, and being a good singer doesn’t make you a good actor. Suzanne worked to make the characters believable," Fontenot said.
Others featured in the show include Thais Kitchens (Shug Avery); Shylanda “Shy” Pam (Sofia); Jeremy Lloyd (Harpo); Levi Landry (Squeak); Jennifer Baptiste (Church Lady-Doris); Missy Griffith (Church Lady-Jarene); and Vera Sims (Church Lady-Darlene).
Fontenot said he quickly snapped up the rights to the show’s 2015 Broadway revival. The production is the regional premiere among local theaters, although the Broadway touring version came to the Saenger Theater in New Orleans in February 2018.
It was the revival’s changes to the original 2005 musical that make "The Color Purple" a fit for the Slidell theater.
While the subject matter is still dark, Fontenot said, it’s not as dark as the original musical, which was much more like the 1985 film. The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, Danny Glover as Mister, and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia.
The Tony Award-winning revival won praise from critics for being less broad and clunky, simplifying the original story and staging and cutting to the emotional heart of the story. Streamlining the size of the show made it more suitable for Cutting Edge's small stage.
But it's the heart of the show that makes it continue to be relevant, not just to Crayton, but on a much larger scale.
"Even though it's an African-American cast, we can all relate to these characters. We've all had feelings of not belonging, not being good enough," Fontenot said.