The national tour of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, at the Forrest Theatre through Sunday, is closer to the novel than was the beloved, somewhat overdone 1985 Spielberg movie. This production, directed by John Doyle, does without elaborate sets and effects, stressing acting, story, and above all the message: a call for God-grateful joy in the midst of suffering and evil. Act 1 is pretty good, if muted and (surprisingly) burdened with stereotype — but act 2 is an ever-loving triumph.
The backdrop is a tall, broken wooden parquet, suggesting poverty cabins and hardscrabble farmhouses. This is the world of Celie, the central figure, a world that will teach her suffering, pain, and loss. Chairs are suspended throughout, because chairs, cleverly wielded, give us all our settings: churches, houses, juke joints, African villages, sewing shops.
Adrianna Hicks is remarkable as Celie. For much of the play, she is beat-down, resigned, traumatized. Most of the music in Act 1 is nice but forgettable. What truly shook folks awake was force-of-nature Carrie Compere as Sofia. Her anthem "Hell No," defiant against male abuse, brought an uproarious, shouting ovation. As it might.
But there's an uncomfortable degree of caricature in Act 1, especially at Harpo's juke joint. We're sexed up, soaked in jazz, blues, and corn liquor … but you could rein back on all that, still have a terrific scene, and avoid what haunted both novel and film: an air of stereotype of black men and women alike. Well, it gets better.
Way better. Act 2 takes us to Africa, and now the music is brilliant, with the lovely tune "African Homeland," multicolored banners, polyrhythms, a vision of eras when "kings and queens who for thousands of years/ ruled magnificent cities washed away by tears." Music and cast drive home what Africa means to Celie, to African Americans, to all Americans. This kicks the show up a level, and it never steps down.
Carla R. Stewart takes over as Shug Avery, who becomes Celie's amour and teacher. Her signature tune "The Color Purple" is not just a feel-good lesson. Shug, although she, too, abuses and hurts Celie, wants her to see God as God is. Celie is a God-hater: "If God ever listened to a colored woman, the world would be a different place." As of "The Color Purple" in Act 2, Shug's lesson ignites. She insists on the always-already-beyond-us mystery of existence: "The color purple – where that come from?"
In Act 2, people begin to change. Celie's cruel husband, Mister, played by Gavin Gregory, sees he must alter his life. Celie starts a business: Never before did colorful pants so goose a production! "Look who's wearing the pants now!" brought hollers from the crowd. After a hiatus, Sofia returns to Harpo. (J. Daughtry is great as Harpo, ever cheerful, ever content to let women lead.) His silly, athletic duet with Compere-as-Sofia, "Any Little Thing," was an audience favorite.
Alice Walker's novel, maybe the most God-insistent novel in the American canon, finds its authority in Celie's unimaginable misfortunes. How can she face up to evil, love herself, and accept her connection to the divine? Shug's answer is not Western. Many in the West would deny any suggestion that you have both the divine and chaos, pointless suffering, and evil. Novel and musical reply: Um, yeah, you do. This answer is pantheist, animist, with self and godhead as terminals on a vital circuit. Hicks-as-Celie finds more and more latitude to bring it vocally, reaching a peak in a spectacular "I'm Here." Her line "I looked for God in myself and found it" echoes Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls: "i found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely."
I'm not saying this show – or any one artwork this side of The Four Quartets or, ironically, Job – can make you believe in God, only that The Color Purple climbs to an irresistible, light-shot plateau. May a lot of people follow it there, to a place of joy that suits the season.