“The Color Purple” is a deeply personal work for many people. Its themes exploring racism and abuse have resonated with people for decades. Now a local musical production, based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker and the 1985 film of the same name, is debuting at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company.
The work first debuted in 2004. It has since become a beloved and honored musical after a run on Broadway in 2005, but witnessing the work the cast and creative team of "The Color Purple" at the DCPA is doing gives the material the kind of exploration expected of an entirely new work.
The music director and conductor, S. Renee Clark, and the actors meticulously explore each phrase of music to discover the nuance that serves the storytelling. Director Timothy Douglas leads the team. He and choreographer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi have told this story together in previous productions, in Portland, Oregon, and Washington D.C., yet each time it is new, the pair say.
From a director's perspective, the show presents many challenges, Douglas said.
“And the biggest one is if, for those who have read the book, it's so personal, the conversation between Celie and God,” Douglas said. “And the minute you create three dimensions, you bring people into that. And this for me is a challenge with the film and all the other stage productions. It just moves away from that intimacy.”
Douglas said the goal of the team was to point to the relationship between Celie and God. “Now it's never gonna happen, but we keep getting closer and that's the benefit of this being the third time,” he said.
Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi said the creative team approached this production as a play with music versus a musical.
“Which means that the numbers themselves don't feel presentational,” she said. “And what was thrilling then, I could delve into that ancestral memory of movement. So when you come see the show, a lot of the movements that you witness are movements that Black folks do, have done — they’re popular movements.”
Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi says because the piece moves through so many time periods, she thinks it is often forgotten that the characters are only one generation removed from enslavement.
“The Color Purple” details the life of Celie, who experiences abuse and racism in rural Georgia in the early 1900s. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 before being adapted into a film starring Whoopi Goldberg in 1985.
For McQueen, this is her third time acting in "The Color Purple." She said each production brings something new and special.
“And just to see the way that the show transforms the people in it — I mean, the audience, absolutely — but to see how it transforms the people inside of it is just an amazing thing,” McQueen said. “‘The Color Purple’ as a musical, gives Black folk the opportunity to be all of the things. It gives us the opportunity to be big and bold. It puts us at the center and there's something beautiful that happens when you are at the center: All those things that could be seen as stereotypes, if you are at the center, they're just part of your humanity.”
Wildflower said telling the story from another point of view than she had in previous roles meant she felt an internal shift in the audition room.
“One of the directions that I got from Tim just shifted everything for me. It was a scene between Celie and Shug. And because I had played Celie, I had such a deep-rooted compassion for her,” Wildflower said. “So it hurt me to say certain things as Shug because I knew what she was going through. It just started making the experience bigger than me. And I wanted to take that journey, having seen both sides of the coin, you know, playing from Celie's perspective and now Shug's perspective.”
Douglas said approaching the piece as a play with music leaves the audience space for contemplation because the scope of Celie’s journey requires it.
“I assume the majority of the audience is coming believing they know ‘The Color Purple,’ whether it's the book, the movie, or another stage version, and that's fine,” Douglas said. “But ours is so personal to the individuals that [are] doing this production. It needs space [so] that the audience … can see a perspective that they've never considered and get in there.”
The team said they understand the lasting impact this story can have on audiences after everyone leaves the theater. Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi said the audience often finds themselves deeply moved by the work and in community with the characters and actors.
“I always say, take that emotional awakening, that emotional activation, and use it in your real life,” Edidi said. “There are still Celie and Sophias and Shugs and Squeaks in the world that we are living in today. So take that feeling of community out the door, out the theater with you, and go do something about it. Make a world in which we can all feel affirmed and loved and honored.”
The Color Purple plays at the DCPA’s Wolf Theater through May 7.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is a financial supporter of CPR, but has no influence on editorial content.
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