The musical adaptation of The Color Purple is, let’s be honest, a bit of a hot mess. Tracing the years of horrendous abuse endured by its protagonist Celie at the hands of her father and husband in the American South, the musical has a unenviable task to pull off – how to function as feel-good entertainment without cheapening its heavy subject matter? A dramaturgical minefield, if ever I saw one.
Covering a span of four decades in the early 1900s, the musical inevitably has to skim over the story’s surface, hopping from plot beat to plot beat. The years flash by in projected titles, never letting you settle into any one situation. The songs can feel unmoored from their impulses, because we haven’t had time to digest the changing circumstances of the characters’ lives. Strangely, this sort of works in the show’s favour, in that the gravity of the abuse can be telegraphed clearly (though director Tinuke Craig wisely keeps most of the violence offstage), while the speed with which it ferries its characters through time prevents it from becoming mired in grimness. Still, it makes for an oddly choppy viewing experience.
And yet, and yet. These snippets of a life must have a strange accumulative effect, because by the end, as the characters have grown older, softened, repented, become more themselves, found peace and resolution after years of abuse, hardship and heartbreak, it’s impossible to hold back tears. Celie’s climactic number, ‘I’m Here’, belted out by T’Shan Williams with blooming force, is a defiant, long overdue affirmation of self-worth: ‘I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful and I’m here’. Celie’s discovery of the dignity and personhood of which she has been consistently stripped is painted with Brenda Russell, Allie Willis and Stephen Bray’s soulful score, hitting its final act emotional pressure points with rug-pull accuracy.
The catalyst for this discovery is Shug (Joanna Francis), a woman guided by the strength of her feelings, freely roaming the country and carrying with her an irresistible aura of self-possession. She and Celie are in love for a time, though the musical, in keeping with its shorthand grammar, shies away from depicting this relationship with the candour and depth that it warrants. A shame, given how still seldom-seen queer love stories are on stage.
Though the musical has its flaws, it’s given a beautifully realised production. Craig directs with a controlled hand, largely dispensing with showbiz razzmatazz. Its look is refreshingly spartan, the stage dominated by Alex Lowde’s towering wooden walls which confine the actors to a shallow slip of stage. All of our focus is on them, and theirs on us. In the wide, spacious auditorium of Birmingham Hippodrome there’s a remarkable sense of communion with the actors. The audience is fiercely engaged and vocal: our boos, laughter, cheers and one impeccably timed ‘OH MY GOD!’ from the back of the circle provide a kind of parallel score.
Josh Pharo’s lights drench the stage with Southern straw-coloured heat, melting into pinks and (of course) purples as characters discover the depths of their affections and attachments to one another – it’s a gorgeous design which makes felt Celie’s stoic ability to find beauty and wonder in the world despite her constant degradation. Lowde’s costumes mix period detail with anachronisms, worn like future-ghosts of the people these characters might have been were they born into different circumstances. Celie, in rust-brown corduroy dungarees, is recognisable both as the poor, careworn housewife in early 1900s Georgia, and a proud, queer woman living in Birmingham in 2019.
Ultimately, the feel-good factor, far from packaging the show as escapist entertainment, is actually what makes it feel truly contemporary. Resisting oppression, fighting for freedom, and celebrating black womanhood are the affirmative engines of the production, and as it comes into its own in its emotional final stretch, it makes for a joyful communal experience.
The Color Purple plays at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 20th July. More info here.