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Stageworks finds the light in ‘The Color Purple’

Bill DeYoung



In Stageworks' "The Color Purple": Celie (Dallis Williams, left) and Krista Ellen Hayes (Nettie). Photos provided.

Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, about a young Black woman growing up dirt-poor and abused in turn-of-the-century rural Georgia, is one of the most frequently banned books of the last 40 years.

Never mind that Walker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award, or that the 1985 film adaptation was one of that year’s most successful movies, nominated for 11 Academy Awards.

The Color Purple portrays African-American men in a brutish light, and includes scenes of rape, incest, violence and even a lesbian encounter.

Therefore, it was banned, in schools and libraries all over America.

But The Color Purple – like young Celie, its heroine – has survived.

In the midst of the country’s current book-banning wave, director Erica Sutherlin is happy to bring the 2005 musical version of The Color Purple to Stageworks Theatre. “I think that this is a wonderful time to celebrate the book,” she says, “and all of its themes. The relationship between women, period. The relationships between Black women.”

The musical, which ran on Broadway from 2005 to 2008 (and again from 2015 to 2017, winning a Tony for Best Revival) opens Friday at Stageworks, in Tampa’s Channelside District. Musical director is William Coleman; the score is jazz, gospel, soul and ragtime.

Like the book, and the movie, the musical treads rocky ground on its way to end-of-show enlightenment for most (not all) of the characters.

Erica Sutherlin. Video screengrab.

“There are elements in this artistic piece that are sad, that can be sad or uncomfortable,” Sutherlin admits. “But ultimately I think the overall, arching journey of these women – and not just Celie but all of these women – is finding their true selves, their voice. How to love themselves. And that is the beauty, that’s the story, that’s the thing that we want to talk about.”

Instead of focusing on the hardships that Celie and her sister Nettie endure, “Let’s just celebrate this beautiful story. Let’s just be present in this moment.

“Part of the intended creation of art is to incite, to create conversation. Sometimes to go against the grain. To bring a fresh perspective. All those things. I just really support that thing about art. I really get behind that – even when it goes against the rest of the world.”

Stageworks in rehearsal (Facebook photo).

Some of the songs – by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – have become iconic in their journey from the musical’s 2005 opening, including “Push the Button,” sung with high energy by the nightclub singer Shug Avery, “What About Love?” and the title number (Celie and Shug), and Celie’s final declaration “I’m Here.”

‘The lyrics are what’s beautiful about the singing,” Sutherlin declares. “Yeah, we have some fun moments when Shug Avery comes to town – ‘Push the Button’ is very juke-joint – but when you listen to the lyrics, I think that’s what people love about this musical. They’re inspirational. Talking about how beautiful a person is, and loving yourself … even the sad stuff is just so beautiful. Gorgeous. Gorgeous!”

Working on The Color Purple has been both eye- and ear-opening for Sutherlin, whose considerable directorial resume includes quite a few cutting-edge dramas.

“I didn’t grow up in the musical theater world, so let’s be clear,” she says. “I somehow fell into this world; I’m not really sure how I did that.

“I like a musical that’s a little gritty, that has some story. That takes a journey. I get behind all of that. Reminds me of straight theater.”

Despite its pretty music and catchy tunes, The Color Purple is, at its heart, the tale of one woman’s uphill battle. “Honestly, if you have seen the movie, the musical is pretty much the movie kind of lifted and shifted just a little bit to fit inside of the musical format,” Sutherlin explains. “So we don’t sit in some of those harder moments as long as you’d think. But they’re still there.”

Early on, Celie confesses to Nettie that her own father has impregnated her.

“Everything about that line is icky, and nasty, and nobody wants to touch it, right?” says Sutherlin. “Well, I think her journey from there to ‘I’m Here’ is worth its weight in gold.”

The Color Purple runs Sept. 9-25. Details and tickets are available here.



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