For several years, “Purple” has been on the wish list of the Cedar Rapids Revival Theater Company, which will hold a two-week show Friday in the CSPS Hall.
Originally, founding directors Cameron Sullenberger and Brian Glick weren’t sure they would be on the show, in which 15 black actors put Celie Johnson through 40 years of physical and emotional abuse until she finally found her voice — and courage Create a new future.
“We always have it on our dockets,” said Sullenberger, the show’s music director. “We thought it would be a great tool, and then we realized we didn’t know if we really had all the African American actors we needed.”
However, when “Black Lives Matter” became the slogan, Renaissance Theater pledged its full support to the movement and pledged to fund the production of the show.
“Even though it’s difficult, we think it’s important,” Sullenberger said.
what: Renaissance Theater Company Presents “Purple”
Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
when: June 10-12 and 17-19, 2022; June 10, 11 and 18 at 7:30pm; June 17 at 8pm; June 12-19 at 2:30pm
Rated: PG-13, for scenes of sexual and physical violence
“To find these actors, no matter where they come from, there is a price to be involved,” added Glick, the show’s artistic director.
“We’ve made that a goal this year, and after Black Lives Matter, to show more representation and diversity on our stage. So we just felt it was a good time to do it.”
Then there was the omicron variant of COVID, which derailed plans to showcase the show last fall. But now the revival theater’s cast, plus staff and orchestra, are throwing their weight behind this musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning book and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Oscar-nominated film .
The original Broadway musical version was released in 2005, with producers including Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey.
“It didn’t create the buzz they expected,” Sullenberger said. “That version had some great stuff, but it was too long and it tried to cover too many bases.
“When they cleaned it up, which was a trend on Broadway, and reinstalled it in 2015, they did it right,” he said. “They stripped out all the production stuff, cut out some of the songs[and]focused on the true spirit of the story.”
This is the version being presented at the Revival Theatre, perfect for the CSPS Hall, which seats 250 people.
“First of all, we love the story. We love the music,” Glick said. “It’s really, really is an amazing work. One of the things we’re proud of is being able to choose a musical with a great book and an equally great soundtrack, and that’s the quintessential version.”
Local professional theatre companies are testing the waters and will perform on the weekends of June 10-12 and 17-19, rather than just one weekend as Revival has done in the past.
It’s a more expensive venture, Glick said. “But we thought, let’s try it this year — if there’s any show to try, this is it. I’m excited to see how word of mouth works for the first time ever.”
Set in the early 20th century South, the story is an epic saga spanning 40 years, during which a teenage Celie is raped, abused and pregnant twice by her father. He abandoned her child before handing her over to the cruel widower “Mr.” who continued to physically and emotionally abuse her throughout their marriage.
In the process, she also became estranged from her younger sister, Nettie, the only person she could feel loved and safe with.
Through this harrowing story, Sullenberger said, a glimmer of hope and trust begins to emerge, wrapped in all the idioms of the African-American experience that have been incorporated into uniquely American musical structures, including pop, play Play, R&B, Soul, Jazz, Funk and Gospel.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re going to church, and sometimes you feel like you’re a BB King in a funky jukebox,” he said.
The unifying music and supporting cast help to moderate the potential ugliness in Celie’s life.
“Beauty comes from the community, from family, friends and neighbors,” Glick noted. “This is where Celie found the love and support she needed. Through God — that was her guiding light — especially through Sugar Avery.”
Shug, a jazz singer and Mister’s longtime lover, lives elsewhere, but she returns with her band and messes up the house at Mister’s son’s new jukebox shop.
“When Shug Avery came to town, (she and Sealy) not only fell in love as two characters, but Mr. Shug bowed back for Shug, so in a lot of ways, Shug Greg was a protector when she was by her side, from his influence Sealy,” Glick said.
“Then you have Sophia and she’s like, ‘I’m my own woman and no one’s going to beat me. No one’s going to raise their hands to me – so you need to stand on your two feet and don’t take it.
“…this show is about finding your voice, this show is about love and trust and all the things we go through in our daily lives, and I think that’s why there are so many points to this story, no matter they’ Extreme elements or not so extreme, a lot of people can relate to,” adds Glick. “There’s also the gay element, where Sealy and Sugar fell in love.
“Really, it’s a story that covers so many aspects of the human experience. That’s why it’s so clever and so funny, and the music goes perfectly with these performance moments,” Glick said. “That’s what makes the two of them such a great couple – the story and the music. Simply brilliant.”
The show mixes local and out-of-town actors, found through national casting calls, as well as out-of-town choreographers and lighting designers, who are also black. Some actors have done shows before and bring this knowledge to the rehearsal process and their roles.
However, the majority of women are locals or have local connections.
Stepping into Celie’s life is Treashana Baker, a familiar face and voice in hallway scenes for years before she moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. The other two local leads are Alicia Monee as Shug Avery and Erica Faye as Sofia.
“Showing our community’s representation is important to us and being able to have these three female leaders is great,” Glick said. “We don’t have to look too far – they’re right here, they’re a perfect fit for these roles – and we’re very excited about that.”
The show asked a lot of performers.
“You have to be an A-list singer to do something like this,” Sullenberger said, “because it has an extreme range. It comes from church experience. Some of them are trained singers, some have degree in music, while others said, “This is my sister and she can sing. “
“It requires them to explore their backgrounds – what they have learned – but it also allows them to be musicians who can count, sing at extremes, and listen to each other. But a lot of people are experienced and they sing in church The class sings and they know what the sound is like. It fascinates me — there are people who are not trained but they come to the rehearsal process but know how to sing the song like a recording.”
Sullenberger was able to work as music director and pianist at an African-American church south of Dallas in the 1990s, what he called a “life-changing” experience. It also gave him an insider’s look at the music on the show that other white musicians may not have.
That, he said, has allowed him to “do some shows that people like me wouldn’t dare to do.” “The funny thing is when you do something in the past, you never know how convenient it will be.”
Including local actors, out-of-town actors and others who trusted them on the creative team was invaluable for a show where the two white directors showcased the African-American experience.
“But I don’t think it’s the most important thing,” Sullenberger said. “The bottom line is – we live in such a divided world, more divided than I can remember when I was young. But it’s a testament to the music, because I will never understand the African American experience, but I Do understand music, music is universal, it is music that unites us.
“Thank God we have American musicals and a very American show. It’s the music that brings us together. …
“Music can divide, but this show is not about dividing people, it’s about uniting us. So that’s probably the most important thing I get out of it. I’ve always known that music is very powerful in bringing people together and healing disease, “Maybe that’s why we’re doing this show,” he said.
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Celie (Treashana Baker, front) finds love from Shug Avery (Alicia Monee, right) and Sofia (Erica Faye, left) in “Purple.” Revival Theater Company will present the musical June 10-19 at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. (this Easter)
Jazz singer Sugar Avery (Alicia Mooney) blows up the house on Harpo’s jukebox in “Purple.” Revival Theater Company will present the musical June 10-19 at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. (this Easter)
After a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse, Celie (Treashana Baker, right) found love in jazz singer Shug Avery (Alicia Monee, left) in “The Purple.” Revival Theater Company will present the musical June 10-19 at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. (this Easter)