As a black man who rarely sees black men portrayed in positive images through popular culture, I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Alice Walker’s classic “The Color Purple.”
Unable to resist its spellbinding narrative, I’ve bristled at its portrayal of men – black men – as little more than incestuous rapists and abusers of women.
The Tony Award-winning production that opened Tuesday night at Belk Theater is, of course, true to that troubling theme. But it also offers some redemptive surprises. So if you head for home at intermissions, as the couple sitting next to me did, you will miss what separates this slightly reconceived production from any other.
Produced by Scott Sanders and directed by John Doyle, this revival of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story is at times annoyingly mundane yet refreshingly new. It goes to painful lengths to touch on nearly every high point in Walker’s original narrative. But just when you think an early exit might help you beat the post-show traffic, it surprises you with a fresh interpretation that locks you in place.
Unlike the previous production that came to Charlotte, this revival is much more explicit, yet not graphic, in its depiction of the love that develops between the longsuffering Celie (Adrianna Hicks) and the sexually charged Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart).
And in the age of #metoo (which wasn’t yet a thing when this production was born), it’s hard to miss the female militancy that develops over the course of this production. At more than one point in the show, the audience erupted in cheers when Celie or Sophia declared their independence from male domination. (I found myself wondering whether parts of the production had been reworked in light of current developments.) At any rate, those scenes seemed especially timely.
Casting for this production was outstanding. Carrie Compere, who plays the role of Sophia, brought to the show a mix of black-girl feistiness and big-girl sexuality that Oprah Winfrey dared not attempt in the movie version of “The Color Purple.” Carla Stewart’s Shug Avery, was all seduction, though I wanted to see more of her tender side.
Hicks was solid in her role as Celie, who, overall, was stronger and more determined than the character portrayed on the big screen. And Erica Durham, who brilliantly played the role of Squeak, was one big squeeze toy. The show came alive each time she cut loose her high-pitched squeal. Clearly an audience favorite.
Garvin Gregory as Mister was a more urbane version of the Danny Glover character, though only slightly less loathsome. And J. Daughtry totally nailed it as the spineless Harpo.
It’s easy to see why this production won a Tony for Best Musical Revival. It takes a story we all know well yet finds a way to make it fresh, even redemptive.
This show runs though July 15 at Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Limited seating may still available.