By Tulis McCall
The Color Purple is an epic tale that seems to span the globe. The entire planet is stuffed into the the small town in Georgia. Along with every classic story theme. People are owned, challenged, subjugated. People are hurt and deserted. People meet their misfortune and not only rise above, they thrive, and their enemies are not only vanquished, they are forgiven.
As musicals go, however, there is nothing remarkable about the book or the score of this musical. Ditto for the direction – although the choice to pare down the scenery to a chorus of wooden chairs is brilliant. The performances overall are fine, but not astonishing. And yet at the show’s conclusion we all, as a group, rise and cheer. The reason for that is standing downstage in an ivory blouse and a pair of canary yellow slacks. Cynthia Erivo. What is remarkable about this production is Cynthia Erivo. Period. Erivo has taken this entire production upon her very capable shoulders, and, like Atlas, she holds it high with grace and perfect balance.
Erivo plays Celie who, when we meet her, is fourteen and the mother of two children sired by her stepfather. Both children have been taken from her to who knows where. Celie’s only joy is her sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) who is the “pretty one” and who has been allowed to go to school. Nettie wants to be a teacher someday. Celie aspires to stay alive and not much more.
She is soon farmed out to Mister (Isaiah Johnson) who is in need of a woman to take control of his home and his motherless children. He wants Nettie, but is promised the addition of a cow if he takes Celie. Celie trades one abusive situation for another. Not long after, she loses Nettie who runs away to escape the abuse that Celie accepts.
The two sisters are separated for decades, and it is only the arrival of the notorious Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson) that rescues them from a future without one another. Shug is everything Celie perceives herself not to be. She is sexual, sensual, powerful and beautiful. The premiere item on that list would be “Beauutiful.” Once Celie is on the receiving end of Shug’s power and is herself seen for the beauty that she possesses inside and out, the walls begin to come tumbling down. And this is where Erivo begins to reveal her wizardry.
The exact center of this story is Celie’s transformation from a sad and sorry being into a thriving, glowing woman of means, motive and passion. As we watch Erivo roam the stage (there is no taking your eyes off of her) we watch as she grows a spine. Vertebrae are added in increments. Celie claws her way out of the pit into which life tossed her toe-hold by toe-hold. She loses over and over again until she refuses to lose anymore. With the song Beautiful she takes us by the heart and pulls us into her journey so smoothly that we can feel her feet moving down the path straight into a bucket of joy.
She declares : I’m beautiful. And I’m HERE.
And that is when we realize that we have witnessed a transformation. Erivo has traveled from ugly to beautiful in plain sight. What was a junk heap is now a pile of gold. What was never valued has been deemed treasure. This number stops the show because it nearly stops our hearts.
Let us look to ourselves and to one another, Celie is telling us. The treasure is in the eyes of the beholder.
THE COLOR PURPLE Credits Music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, Book by Marsha Norman; Directed by John Doyle
Cast Cynthia Erivo as Celie, Jennifer Hudson as Shug, Danielle Brooks as Sofia, Isaiah Johnson as Mister, Joaquina Kalukango as Nettie and Kyle Scatliffe as Harpo; Also Phoenix Best, Dwayne Clark, Lawrence Clayton, Carrie Compere, Patrice Covington, Adrianna Hicks, Bre Jackson, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevyn Morrow, Ken Robinson, Antoine L. Smith, Carla R. Stewart, Akron Watson and Rema Webb