Last Updated on 18th February 2021
Ray Rackham reviews the online musical production of The Color Purple at home presented by the Curve Leicester.
The Color Purple at home
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A series of vertical stage lights tower above an assembled group of witnesses, who in immediate and joyous harmony expose a past the world had hoped to forget, in Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray’s spectacularly timely musical, The Color Purple. It’s a Sunday morning and the ensemble who inhabit this world let us know where and why we are here. We know this story is going to be Celie’s (T’Shan Williams in a majestically arresting performance). We know the ensemble will expertly carry us through the years and tragedies that befall a community marginalised, brutalised, and often without hope. We know the piece will not only expose black struggle with neither apprehension nor apology, but also celebrate black existence with joy and exuberance. Most pertinent, however, as events unfold, we are subtly reminded how important this story remains.
After its magnificent Christmas production of Sunset Boulevard; a musical which appeared refreshed and revolutionised for this new world of theatrical streaming; it is astonishing to conclude that, with The Color Purple, The Curve has managed the insurmountable; its upped its game. Astute cinematography captures the almost tangible haze one only ever expects to see in a live theatre, whilst the towers of light (Ben Cracknell’s intuitive design) frame a visceral performance area which – with the ensemble remaining just off of the revolving stage but defiantly still on camera, represent almost an extension of us, the audience.
Tom Marshall’s sound design, embracing the pulsating echoes of crickets, birdsong and children’s laughter, gives the piece a haunting authenticity, again merging the tropes of theatre and cinema. No layers are added to attempt to hide the seams of live streaming, we see camera operators side by side with the actors, resplendent in Alex Lowde’s sepia hued costumes, establishing a time and place, with splashes of colour to highlight character. Projections and overlays are used not to hide the surrounding gubbins of a working theatre, but rather to accentuate their existence. This version of The Color Purple is a creative and technical triumph. A combination of class, truth and honesty from every department. Tinuke Craig’s place is assured as a leading director of this type of theatre, steering a streamed musical that genuinely might not ever be bettered.
The success of The Color Purple in no small part relies upon the talents of its cast, and in the case of this production, the ensemble is uniformly and stupendously good. From Carly Mercedes Dyer’s thrillingly strong and human portrayal of Shug Avery, to Karen Mavundukure’s desperate, resilient and uncomfortably raw Sofia, the musical clearly sets its stall in the strength of womanhood; and as such stays faithful to Alice Walker’s novel. Danielle Fiamanya’s transcendent Nettie explores black existence beyond the claustrophobic confines of the Deep South, and at the top of Act Two leads the ensemble in a show-stopping Africa. However, attention must also be paid to Ako Mitchell’s Mister, whose transformation moves him away from a Willy Lomanesque pastiche to a fully realised element of this musical tapestry, adding a beautiful layer to the piece, most notably from his Act Two tour de force Mister Song onwards. But the show belongs to Williams, whose incomparable Celie is perfectly crafted, exposed and sung; each aside directed to us through the camera lens in an exhilarating reminder of her stagecraft, each note sang with the anguish of a woman admonished by the society in which she is trapped, yet determined to not let it beat her. Much is always made of the song I’m Here, so it is particularly pleasurable to see Williams managing to make it her own.
The piece packs a powerful emotional punch as a result of what has happened to the theatre, the world, and our individual communities since we last visited it. Celie’s journey bares itself with a heightened anguish as we explore the themes of community, fear, resignation and isolation post 2020. At it’s core, Craig’s production draws upon the traditions of southern slavery, in all it’s evil misogyny and brutal racism. It deftly deals with the kind of America the world would rather suppress in troublesome folklore, whilst defiantly holding a mirror up to its wrenching legacy today, tomorrow and until we all start really listening. With such a strong score (Alex Parker at his musically directing best), it’s hard not to listen, but moreover not to think, and think hard. As 2021 continues to provide an abundance of online content, it’s easy to lose sight of art’s power to transform outlook and galvanize action. As this company sing “rising like the sun is the hope that sets us free”, be sure to treat yourself to this reminder. It’s important.