By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Broadway in Chicago’s production of “The Color Purple”
SHERI: Wow, what an AMAZING performance! This uplifting show about the unbreakable spirit of black women is filled with powerhouse music from beginning to end, written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
JOSH: This ensemble puts on a Broadway-level performance, with explosive songs, subtle but tight choreography and theatrical intensity that makes it impossible to get drawn away from the action. Seeing The Color Purple in such a magnificent theater makes for a special experience. The acoustics enhance the incredible voices of the performers. The simple set of basic, sturdy wooden chairs which come on and off the wall, are symbolic of the utility of the female characters as seen by their male counterparts. As the chairs move, so do these women, all influencing the main character of Celie (Adrianna Hicks) to see beyond how the men in her life view her, as merely something to serve them.
SHERI: With so many top-notch, big, powerful voices onstage, this isn’t a show that needs to rely on special effects or fancy set dressing. I was brought to tears on more than one occasion. Gospel music is meant to fully envelop you in emotion, and my only disappointment was that the cavernous Auditorium Theatre does not have surround sound. Management: consider the investment.
JOSH: Still, I found myself enveloped in sound and got quite emotional during a few of the numbers, especially towards the end.
SHERI: For those who are unfamiliar with Alice Walker’s now classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, or the movie with the same name, the musical tells the tragic tale of Celie, a poor, young black woman who has been forced to carry two of her father’s children. The only spot of joy in her bleak life is her strong relationship with her kindhearted conventionally attractive sister, Nettie, played by N’Jameh Camara. Celie is married off to an abusive local farmer who attempts to rape Nettie, causing her to flee to Africa. Celie is left to fend for herself alone in a cruel world that is inhospitable to a soft-hearted black woman without conventionally attractive looks. I know this sounds super heavy, but STAY WITH ME.
JOSH: Celie is also an unlikely lead character for a musical – a black woman who’s first love is another woman – and a character who faces serious hardships that would make a Tennessee Williams play feel like a comedy.
SHERI: Magically, this musical is NOT A DOWNER IN THE LEAST! Tony and Pulitzer-winning writer Marsha Norman’s adaptation of the story keeps a lively pitch-perfect tone, paying homage to some of the most iconic lines from the movie, (“All my life I had to fight”) keeping the audience smiling and laughing straight through to the end of Celie’s cathartic and heartwarming triumph.
JOSH: Carla Stewart as Shug Avery and Carrie Compere as Sofia both add powerful, often humorous, role models for Celie as she finds courage, strength, and empowerment to finally stand up for herself. Both Shug and Sofia simmer with sexuality…
SHERI: …as many of the men do too, mercy! The song, “Anything I Can Do For You” and Shug’s song are both hilarious and bawdy.
JOSH: …uh…yeah…this is often a sexually charged show … but they also are strong, confident women who are in control of their lives.
SHERI: This is an unapologetically black feminist story, a perspective rarely examined in popular culture. Nettie, Sofia and Shug help Celie to find her hope, backbone and sexuality, patching up the broken pieces of spirit. Each of the women is an empowering three-dimensional reclaiming of long-standing stereotypes of black women; Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire (Google it) played against the “respectable woman.” Step aside, men – this musical is #BlackGirlMagic at its finest!
JOSH: The men also hold their own, most powerfully Gavin Gregory (as Mister) who commands the stage when he acts and sings with ferocious intensity, holding notes that seem never ending. J. Gaughtry (as Harpo) adds humor and warmth to the men in the musical who, generally, are controlling and domineering. Both Mister and Harpo develop and change, though while the audience expects Harpo’s transformation, Mister’s is less pronounced and more of a surprise.
SHERI: And at its core, this play is all about transformation. Women discovering their own worth and beauty, the life-changing power of travel and understanding faith as nature and wonder instead of the deeds of men. The Color Purple will tickle your funny bone and redefine your definition of love. Run, don’t walk to see this amazing show before it closes!
Broadway in Chicago presents “The Color Purple” through July 29 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.