fri 01/03/2024

The Color Purple - at Home, Curve online review – life-affirming musical retelling of Alice Walker's novel | reviews, news & interviews

The Color Purple - at Home, Curve online review – life-affirming musical retelling of Alice Walker's novel

The Color Purple - at Home, Curve online review – life-affirming musical retelling of Alice Walker's novel

Celie learns how to live from the strong, rebellious women she encounters

Transcending hardship through musicManuel Harlan

This production of The Color Purple is an extraordinary testimony to the fact that many of the 20th century’s most joyous forms of music – jazz, ragtime and of course blues – had their roots in misery and oppression.

Alice Walker’s powerful story of how a teenage black girl transcends rape, serial abuse and brutalisation first became an unlikely candidate for success as a musical in 2004, playing in Atlanta before it successfully hit Broadway in 2005.

Last month it was announced that a film version of the musical will be released in cinemas – microbes permitting – in December 2023. In the meanwhile the Leicester Curve production, in conjunction with the Birmingham Hippodrome, provides an invigorating reminder of the appeal of Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s Tony-award winning barnstormer, which got a second lease on life both sides of the Atlantic from John Doyle's pared-back revival, first seen at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013.

That the show exudes such ecstatic energy comes despite the fact that Leicester Curve theatre has had to fight accusations of religious discrimination after the actor Seyi Omooba – who was initially hired to play the lesbian central character, Celie, when this show was first preparing to be seen live – was dismissed from the production for a homophobic tweet. After a lengthy legal battle, in which she was supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the Curve last week announced that her claims had been rejected by an employment tribunal.

The simple staging of Tinuke Craig’s production, which has no backdrop but is set on a stage with revolving concentric circles, combines with Jordan Dean’s camerawork to create something that feels simultaneously theatrical and filmically natural: quite some achievement, as anyone watching the evolution of theatre over this challenging year will know. After a rousing gospel-style opening at the church, the camera zooms in from above on T’Shan Williams’s Celie to reveal her character holding the second baby she has had as a result of rape by her father.

The joy dominating this production is due in no small measure to the fact that Celie drags herself out of her terrible situation as a result of the strong, rebellious women that she encounters. Williams (below) is an extraordinary stage presence – simultaneously humble and charismatic; when she’s downtrodden she can seem as dejected as a dishcloth, yet when she meets someone with whom she resonates, the hum of transcendent happiness is almost audible.

Growing up in rural Georgia at the start of the twentieth century, the first strong woman in her life is her bookish sister Nettie. Danielle Fiamanya is a compelling presence in that role – her character’s affection for Celie is balanced with outrage at how her sister has been treated. In that relationship we see the predicament of Celie’s existence. When the brutish Mister (a difficult role tackled with aplomb by Ako Mitchell) turns up and says he wants to marry Nettie, Celie paradoxically makes her life simultaneously better – through saving her sister – and far, far worse by saying she will marry him instead.

The narrative arc shows Celie's discovery that she does not have to sacrifice herself to make life better. The turning point comes when her stepson Harpo brings home the defiantly assertive Sofia, played with exuberant chutzpah by Karen Mavundukure. In the wonderful song "Hell No! (All my life I had to fight") she shows Celie – who, along with Mister has suggested to Harpo that he beat Sofia so as to control her – that self-abasement ultimately represents betrayal not just of herself but of those around her.

As Shug Avery – who collapses drunk on the stage shortly after arriving there – Carly Mercedes Dyer (pictured above) fearlessly embodies both the flaws and strengths of the woman who becomes the love of Celie’s life. The chemistry between them is credible not least because of the directness with which Williams’s Celie expresses it. Shug’s first number is the raunchily sultry "Push da button", but Celie’s "What About Love" escapes seduction clichés to ask fundamental questions about who they both really are.

Full credit must go to both musical director Alex Parker and choreographer Mark Smith for investing the songs and movement with a vibrant energy that breaks through the screen. The production is inspired by a brilliant novel, but the music is no mere addition; it is intrinsic to what makes the production resonate. The subject matter is tough, yet ultimately this is a life-affirming, unsentimental retelling of Walker’s powerful story. A tonic, then, in difficult times – not least for being one of the more successful productions in navigating the tricky terrain between theatre and film, leaving the audience members wanting to sing and dance themselves, no mean feat at this stage of lockdown.


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