“Dear Nettie, Things is hard here. People keep on making things worse for each other.”
In the musical The Color Purple, a young girl named Celie’s only hope rests in letters to her sister Nettie. Raped and impregnated by her stepfather at 14 and sold to a man named Mister, Celie prays to God hoping to be rescued from her circumstances.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same title, the musical follows Celie from a shy teen girl in the early 1900s to a fully realized woman in charge of her destiny in the 1940s. The novel was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. The musical version by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray originated at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2004 before opening on Broadway in 2005.
An outstanding ensemble holds the audience in the palm of its hands in City Springs Theatre Company’s production, onstage at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center through May 22.
Director Kamilah Long and choreographer Kenneth Green make a great team for this musical. Long is the managing director of Play On Shakespeare, an organization committed to make the Bard accessible to all. Green’s work as a choreographer spans from pageants and half-time shows to being a lecturer at Spelman College. Their attention to detail and expertise are evident in this production, which at times feels more like a national tour than regional theater. The musical numbers are precise, and Long pulls sincere performances out of each cast member.
Often in productions of The Color Purple, Celie’s childlike innocence is lost because of the gravity of her circumstances. However, as Celie, Felicia Boswell explores the character’s full emotional range. She is hunched and unsteady as a teenage girl who doesn’t understand why she has been raped and her children taken away. Then, as she matures, that lankiness becomes a stiff ache from being worked and worn down.
In addition, Long, Boswell and LaTricia Akhagbeme, who plays Nettie, do a beautiful job of establishing Celie and Nettie’s sisterhood in the beginning. The audience longs for their reunion as much as they do.
Likewise, Safiya Fredericks makes the role of Shug Avery all her own. Her Shug isn’t just scandalous, she’s bitter and desperate. Sex is her survival mechanism, her way of claiming some sort of independence in a world that would have her be poor, barefoot and pregnant.
Kayce Grogan-Wallace does not disappoint as Sofia, the strong-willed wife of Mister’s son, Harpo. Her Sofia is sexy, heavy-footed and no-nonsense, even after she’s beaten and abused by the police in the play. Grogan-Wallace played the role in the 2018 production at Actor’s Express, and the stage is hers every time she’s on it here, as it was in the previous production.
Kudos are due to the entire ensemble, which looks great in Ann Hould-Ward’s costume design. Hould-Ward really captures the time period and the culture of the rural South.
This is a cast of outstanding voices and music director Lewis Webb knows just what to do with them. It’s vocal Olympics on the sparse stage, which is filled by these powerhouse singers. His gospel arrangements and harmonies really shine in “All We’ve Got to Say” and in the show-stopping “Push Da Button” and “Miss Celie’s Pants” numbers. I just wish there weren’t so many sound issues with the microphones and speakers. It was hard to hear the dialogue and beginnings of songs because the microphones went in and out. For those unfamiliar with the story, the plot was likely lost.
The Color Purple has a long history in Georgia, namely because Walker is a native daughter. As a self-proclaimed womanist and former editor of the feminist publication Ms. magazine, Walker has always centered women in her work. I have seen the musical about five times, on Broadway and off, and I find there’s always something new to discover in the story.
Celie, Shug and Sofia’s complaints about how the men in their lives use their bodies like mules and machines, still resonate with many women. As the nation emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s hard to ignore the ways the events of the last couple of years have disproportionately impacted women. Women are the primary caregivers for children and elders. Most nurses caring for the sick are women. And, many women had jobs eliminated in the early pandemic layoffs.
The Color Purple is ultimately a story of resilience, which is a spirit that women around the world are looking for as much today as they were 40 years ago. Perhaps, that is why Walker’s text is still teaching us about how we treat each other and how to honor ourselves.
Kelundra Smith, an ArtsATL Editor-at-Large, is a critic and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, ESPN’s Andscape, American Theatre and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.