If you plan to see just one Broadway production this year, make it the musical The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same title. This spectacular musical showcases a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Allee Willis.
Set in the 1930s South, it is the story of Celie, whose abusive father essentially sells her at a very young age into marriage with a man with five children. Mister, as the man is called, beats Celie, constantly telling her that she is ugly. Over the years, various strong, independent-minded women, such as Sofia and Shug Avery, come into Celie’s life. They change the way she views herself and what she should accept and not accept. Through these women, Celie finds an inner strength that not only helps her to continue to live, but also to make her life infinitely better. She eventually leaves her abusive marriage and opens her own business designing and making clothes for women. All the while she has a pain in her heart because she was cut off from her sister Nettie, the only person who really loved her and made her happy. Celie longs for them to be reunited one day. That reunion comes in a wonderful, moving moment that brings tears to the eyes of men and women alike in the audience.
But The Color Purple is not just about abuse, suffering and anger. There are many moments of laughter, and the singing is absolutely phenomenal. The production, which is presented by Oprah Winfrey, features an all-African-American cast that makes the stage explode with everything from gospel and ragtime to jazz and the blues. Leading the ensemble is LaChanze, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in Once on This Island. LaChanze’s Celie captivates the audience as she brings out, in almost excruciatingly vivid detail, all the emotions that her character experiences. LaChanze likens Celie to herself.
“I’m very fortunate that this character’s state of mind is close to me. I understand it, I get who she is, where she comes from, her vulnerability, fear, hopes, desires, because I’ve lived in a world of my own trunk of emotional experiences,” she says. “I’ve been hurt before and afraid before, but Celie’s particular brand of emotion is close to me. She’s from the South; I’m from the South. I wasn’t born and living at that time, but I’ve seen enough about that era to have my own opinions about who she was and how she might have existed in that world.”
LaChanze says she does not prepare herself emotionally to play Celie. Instead, she says, “I try to get myself together physically. The emotions I experience in the moment. I work moment to moment. It’s a basic technique of acting, but for me it works. I clear my mind of any extraneous thoughts.”
LaChanze and her fellow cast members are well aware of the production’s impact on its audience. “It’s a timeless story. It’s not about gender; it’s about love, redemption, hope and fear. It’s a human condition. We can all identify with Celie. There’s a bit of her in each of us. We all connect with the moment she overcomes her insecurity,” LaChanze says.
The Color Purple marks the Broadway debut of LaChanze and a number of other cast members, including Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who plays the sexy Shug, and Felicia P. Fields, who plays the feisty Sofia. Nowhere does the production fall short. It is, indeed, a mesmerizing musical.