Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple begins as a series of letters written by the protagonist to God. She was repeatedly raped, beaten, mentally abused, forced into a domestic slavery, and her children and sister were stripped of her life. She had no choice but to ask God for help.
In many ways, it’s the story of the devastating early 20th century American South, including its devastating beauty. Despite all the horrors Celie has gone through, she has also gone through a terrifying transformation, finding love and joy, finding her own strength to overcome all odds, and in the end, God, not the outside force she has to turn to, is actually in her heart. When she declares “I’m poor, Blake, and I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here, I’m here!” It’s an inspiring self-declaration.
As perfect as Walker’s novel is, its musical iteration is an honorable revival as the final production of Hope’s Summer Repertoire Theatre’s 50th anniversary season. Well-crafted characters and extraordinary story come to life with a gorgeous soundtrack and talented cast with simple and elegant technical choices. The show itself was a prayer, and the praise for all of Celie ended up being praised – light and dark, all of it, beautifully shot through.
This is no small feat. But beautiful music is heavily influenced by black American music, from gospel to jazz to neo-soul, and poetic, funny and witty lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allie Willis and Stephen Bray, Plus Martha Norman’s book alludes to the aforementioned epistolary form, focusing on faith and its crisis, but also subtly juxtaposing scenes for great storytelling efficiency – in Marcus De Under the visionary direction of Nader Johnson, this is a dynamic and life-affirming musical.
The story begins and ends with Celie, a challenging character that Tenayjah X. Hawkins takes full control of, capturing Celie’s complex emotions with the necessary understatement, showing Celie’s full range of self-discovery and self-possession without sentimentality. Her transformation was emotional, physical and vocal. Her performance was a superb tearjerker.
The relationships she builds on stage are real; it’s as if the audience is going through her journey with her, not just witnessing it. That’s thanks in large part to the massive cast (and their generally incredible vocals) and the things they’ve created together, from a sisterly love with Sierra Orr as Nettie, to a romance with Jasmine Monét as Shug and motherly love.
Brandon Alvión also subtly plays Celie’s husband/Mr. Slave. He is mean, but also worthy of sympathy. While we hated him for his cruelty, we also came to understand his complexity, rooted in the systems of oppression that worked on and through him. He also fell in love with Sugar, and what he had in common with Celie was the inability to tame her. He has been misled, but sometimes with good intentions. We feel and know it all through Alvión’s performance.
Other evocative performances include Madeline Grace Jones as the powerhouse Sofia’s “Hell No!” Bringing Down the House; Corey Barlow as a consummate clown but totally human Harpo; Sirena de la Rosa , Jessica Coleman and Alanna Carter are a fantastic chorus of Greek Church ladies who interrupt the narrative with soulful songs filled with massive harmonies and extremely unique characterization.
They play 18 musical numbers on Tamara L Honesty’s simple, elegant, multi-layered set, allowing for endless possibilities, from indoors to outdoors, a jukebox in the woods to an African dance celebration. Transitions between scenes are seamless, and Mario Raymond’s lighting can change the mood and temperature of the room.
Chaz Sanders dances are dynamic, varied, often very sexy, and beautifully executed. Inspired by Tony Toney’s period costumes, they play a particularly important role in the narrative and move gracefully with the dance.
Music director Alex Thompson does a great job leading this remarkable 8-piece band, and sound designer Adiah Hicks makes everything sound crisp and melodious.
There’s always an element of magic in great theaters, but HSRT’s “purple” is nothing short of divine. It’s an informative, gorgeously produced, one-of-a-kind American story in which the greatest underdog overcomes all socioeconomic forces against her to become exactly who God wants her to be — and a force in the world. Not only was the 50th anniversary season inspiring, but it ended in a remarkable way, showing just how relevant, necessary and ingeniously well-produced theater continues to exist in Western Michigan.
Hope Summer Repertory
July 23 to August 4
Hope Education Network