Sisterhood is powerful. That's the theme that has carried The Color Purple in all of its incarnations: a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1982, an Oscar-nominated film in 1985, a Tony-winning musical in 2005, and now, its latest iteration, a revival, back on Broadway after a very successful stint in London in 2013. It's a theme that was equal parts radical and long overdue when Alice Walker wrote the novel, but that theme now gives the revival, which opened Thursday night, its potent currency.
In all of its forms, the story is of Celie, a young woman who has been brutalized in many ways, including rape and having her children taken away. Her journey from passive and meek to assertive and entrepreneurial drives the story. Along the way, her empowerment journey is aided by her relationships with other women: her sister, Nettie; Sofia, her stepdaughter-in-law; and Shug Avery, a blues singer. Each provides Celie with a vision that being black and a woman need not mean being subservient.
The story's first stint on Broadway was produced by Oprah Winfrey, who had a starring role in the movie. It played for three years and spawned several touring companies. The current version was the brainchild of director John Doyle, who won a Tony Award in 2006 for his revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Doyle wanted to create a leaner version of the play, and he worked with Marsha Norman, who wrote the book for the original production, to strip 30 minutes from it. Even the set is minimal: The stage is bare except for chairs and platform. The chairs serve as pedestals, emblems of work and safe havens from the rigors of physical exertion demanded of black people in rural Georgia during the ’30s.
The minimalist effect was meant to make the new version much more character driven, and the cast members of this new production rise to the occasion. Cynthia Erivo, a young veteran of the British stage, is superb as Celie, a role she played in London. A few weeks ago, while doing an interview for The Root, she told me that her role as the title character in a touring production of Aida prepared her for the emotional rigors of playing Celie. It’s clear that her ability to overcome obstacles and her newfound assertiveness at the end of The Color Purple hearken to that role.
Jennifer Hudson is superb as that force of nature, Shug Avery, who sucks up all the air in the room in most of her scenes. During that same interview, Hudson told me that her friends and colleagues had to persuade her that she could be that prepossessing, but she probably won’t need that kind of convincing again.
Danielle Brooks, who is having a breakout as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, does very well in the complex role of Sofia, whose assertiveness and independence triumph among her people but not with the white people in the town.
When it was published, the book was highly criticized for its lack of positive black male characters, but the play has softened and fleshed out both major male figures. Harpo, who is played by Kyle Scatliffe with just the right amount of humor, is a man who wants a woman as a partner, not a servant. Mister, the tyrannical force in Celie’s life, is given a redemptive end and is played well by Isaiah Johnson.
The musical begins as a period piece with songs that reference the gospel, jazz and blues of a bygone era, and finishes with contemporary power ballads (perhaps we should think of them as empowerment ballads). The transition accomplishes several narrative functions. The first act, with so much vintage music sung in baritones and contralto voices that aren’t often part of the popular music vernacular these days, links the musical to other Broadway productions that recall an earlier era, like Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Scottsboro Boys and Sophisticated Ladies. The second act feels very contemporary. The music recalls more recent Broadway fare like Passing Strange and Hamilton.
The magic of this production is that the story, though set eight decades ago, feels so current. African-American women have taken a firm grip on the tools of upward mobility—including education, as was the case with Nettie, and entrepreneurship, as was the case with Celie—to determine their own world rather than depend on others. It is the best explanation for why the story has been revisited so often, and why it continues to resonate. The work onstage by Erivo, Hudson, Brooks and their co-stars enlarges the power of this story.