The Color Purple began as a 1982 novel by Alice Walker. The book was critically acclaimed for many reasons, not the least of which was its style of storytelling through the use of a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings. As a result, Walker became the first Black woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was adapted to the screen just two years later by Steven Spielberg. The movie garnered 11 Academy Award nominations.
It took 20 years before a stage adaptation was created — a stark, but ultimately uplifting musical that spans 40 years of the life of the main character, Celie. This ambitious work has withstood the test of time and, nearly two decades later, has found its way onto the Hormel Stage of The Phoenix Theatre Company. This version of The Color Purple rests on a firm foundation of honest characterization, stellar vocal performances, and of course the original riveting literary work by Alice Walker.
Andrea Fleming’s Celie effects a most impressive transformation through the course of the play. At first, she is a naive 14-year old child, happy to be relegated to household chores, if only to spend quality time with her beloved sister. Then, as a physically and psychologically abused wife, Celie reveals her inability to see beyond the narrow perspective into which she was born — at one point, conceding that in order to teach a wife her place, you must, of course, beat her. By the final act, Celie grows into her destined role as an emancipated, independent woman. Her ingenuity and self-sufficiency makes her the equal or better of any man she knows.
Meka King is a show-stopper on more than one occasion as the irrepressible and lusty Shug Avery, a local blues singer and self-confessed vamp. Shug’s universal desirability among men, leaves her unaffected by the abusive patriarchy that dominates the working class Southern culture and that protects the fragile ego of the man of the house. King’s portrayal comes with smooth, bluesy pipes, and no small degree of sassiness.
King has strong competition from Shaunice Maudlyn Alexander (as Sofia) in both vocal talent and physical presence. Sofia shows up like gangbusters, promising to be Celie’s savior early on, only to be beaten down by husband Harpo, played by Blu. Blu imbues in the character of Harpo the cautious reticence of an unfavored son of Celie’s husband, Mister (played by Noah Lee Hayes). Sofia and Harpo represent genuine love turned sour when societal pressure requires that the wife be subservient and obedient to her husband, at the risk of severe consequence.
The Greek Chorus of gossips — three church-going, fan-beating, “proper ladies” of the community — link events together, hint at behind-the-scenes hanky panky, and issue general commentary on the state of affairs. The light musical banter is a welcome bridge between comedy, pathos, and tragedy, and gives opportunities for the audience to show its appreciation for the vocally versatile trio.
Returning to Andrea Fleming, we cannot say enough about her captivating performance as Celie. Fleming projects a clear story arc as a woman of color in the Deep South, living on the edge of her society by virtue of her self-conscious self-isolation. She accepts her role as a homely throwaway without bearing any malice toward her more intelligent and attractive sister, Nettie.
We would be remiss to overlook Jonice Bernard (as Nettie). Graceful and angelic in physical presence, Bernard’s Nettie remains the glimmer of hope for Celie and carries the weight of lifting herself above the fray to find her way in a bigger world beyond that which will yoke Celie for the better part of her life. Bernard and Fleming’s vocal harmonies are a joy to listen to — two sisters bound for different courses in life, mutually devoted and supported.
The Color Purple plays at the smaller of the two Phoenix Theatre Company stages, opting for a sparse but versatile set that screams dusty browns and grays, but hints optimistically at pinks and purples. There’s ample room for large ensemble song and dance numbers, yet small enough for the most intimate of scenes that are the heart and soul of the production. While Celie may give thanks to God for the color purple, we give thanks to Alice Walker and to the Phoenix Theatre Company for this presentation of The Color Purple.