The Color Purple, the Oprah Winfrey-financed musical based on the 1985 Stephen Spielberg movie, which was based on Alice Walker’s 1983 novel, opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in mid December and has been packing the 2300-seat house ever since.
Set in a rural Georgia town in the first half of the 20th Century, the play tells the story of abused and disregarded young African-American girl named Celie. When we first meet her, the 14 year old Celie is pregnant by her father for the second time. Soon, a suitor named Albert comes to court Celie’s younger and more attractive sister, Nettie. The father refuses to let Albert marry Nettie and offers Celie instead. Albert agrees to the deal only after the father throws in a cow.
This leads Celie into a life of abuse where Mister (as she calls Albert) beats her routinely for being ugly. Or as Celie explains it, “for being me.” Their sex life is unpleasant. Celie says its feels like Mister is going to the bathroom inside her; she tries to think about her beloved missing sister Nettie to distract her from the pain of the sexual experience.
Enter singer Shug Avery, a sumptuous woman who has men wrapped around her finger and woman entranced by both her beauty and her ability to keep the men jumping. Shug immediately takes a shine to Celie, who is equally fascinated by her. Although Shug publicly goes along with the party line that Celie is ugly, in private, she tells Celie how beautiful she is. This unexpected but much needed attention is all it takes for Celie to fall for Shug. So, when Shug serenades her and kisses her, Celie responds lovingly. After their first sexual encounter, Celie experiences her first orgasm. She comes alive as she finally understands what love and sex are all about.
Shug also tells Celie where Mister has been hiding her missing sister Nettie’s letters. With the knowledge that Nettie is still alive and Shug’s love supporting her, Celie begins standing up for herself to Mister. Soon, Shug whisks Celie away to live with her, although Shug continues to have sex with men too. And with real, caring love in her life, Celie begins to feel God’s love as well.
Jeannette Bayardelle is mesmerizing as Celie, playing the character with such agony, you feel her pain deeply as she longs for a better life. And you also feel her joy as Shug tells her she is beautiful, as she blossoms with her sexual awakening after a lifetime of abuse.
Dramatically, the story works well. They wisely chose to end the first act when Shug kisses Celie and lets her know Nettie is alive, a choice that makes sense for the overall structure of the play. However, in the book that kiss happens about ¾ of the way through, so there’s not a lot of story left to tell in the second half of the play.
Musically, there are plenty of songs and some are quite lovely (most especially Shug’s serenade song “Too Beautiful for Words”). However, most of the songs aren’t very memorable and more importantly, the show lacks any true showstopper numbers. While the first act and the finale both have songs that try to rouse the audience (and partially succeed), neither is a true show-stopper in the grand Broadway tradition.
And that lack of showstoppers is especially surprising given that the play is set in a rural Southern, deeply religious black community where Gospel music was a vital part of both the church-going experience and everyday life. Oh, you can tell that Gospel music has influenced many of the songs, but none of the tunes is a full out, rousing, hand-clapping, feel-the-spirit Gospel number that makes you want to cry Hallelujah.
The most disturbing thing about the show came not from the stage, but from the audience itself. At the moment that Shug kissed Celie, a group of audience members began laughing. Yes, laughing. Not chuckling or giggling or even guffawing, but full out laughing. Hearty laughter that lasted 15 to 20 seconds; at least twice as long as the actual kiss. Seemed to be a group of 75 to 100 people.
A friend who was sitting in the upper balcony at the same performance said he didn’t hear any laughing in his section, but rather gasps of horror as the kiss happened.
Both the laughter and the gasps are disturbing reminders of how ingrained homophobia (and biphobia) still is in the American culture and how physical displays of same-sex love like a tender kiss is still viewed as threatening. We’ve still got a long way to go as a society.
The Color Purple plays through March 9, 2008 at the Ahmanson Theater in the Music Center complex, 135 N. Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $20-$100. 213-972-4400. ahmanson-theater.com