By Morgan Politzer
Women supporting other women. Women owning their sexuality. Women standing up for justice and independence. Women fighting for their education.
Female empowerment in theater is nothing new. At this point in our social and political climate, it’s almost expected. But it is the way in which these themes are presented that makes them relevant and new every time.
Set in the deep south during the first half of the twentieth century, “The Color Purple” takes these old themes and makes them shiny and new in this hilarious and empowering revival of the iconic gospel musical.
Directed by John Doyle and based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker, the musical is a revival of the original 2005 Broadway production, and chronicles the life and self-awakening of Celie (Adrianna Hicks) as she learns to navigate her abusive marriage and newfound friendships.
As the show opens, Mister (Gavin Gregory), a local farmer and widower, asks Celie’s father for permission to marry one of his young daughters. While still school-aged herself, Celie selflessly volunteers herself to allow her sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) to pursue her dream of finishing her education and becoming a teacher. Mister takes her back to his estate, where she is given a new life of hard work and a loveless marriage. It is not until Mister’s son Harpo (Jay Donnell) brings home his sharp and sassy fiancé Sophia (Carrie Compere) that Celie sees a woman who refuses to take orders and fights for her independence. When Mister’s longtime lover and raunchy jazz singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) comes back to town, she shows Celie love and empathy for the first time, and encourages her to find her inner strength.
As the years progress, Celie begins to find her voice in her unexpected love for Shug Avery, resulting in their sensual musical number “What About Love?” as they explore their newfound sexuality at the close of Act I. While her yearn for independence grows, Celie transforms from a battered and submissive housewife into resilient and successful business woman, finally gaining her freedom from Mister.
Male characters begin to take a back seat as women dominate the stage with big voices and strong characters. With the help and encouragement of Sophia and Shug Avery, Celie learns her value and the impact her voice can have for others. The audience watches as Hicks blossoms before them, not only as a character but as a performer as well. While she commands attention from the moment she steps on the stage, she does so at first with a quiet and thoughtful energy, until it slowly grows into a roaring demand full of spirit and passion.
In contrast to Hick’s quiet and polite request, there’s nothing soft or sweet about Compere, but rather a raw and powerful kind of unstoppable energy as she belts out “Hell No!” Leading other women in almost a war cry-like musical number, Sophia admonishes the cruelty of men and rallies the women around her to fight back.
Shug Avery is her own force of nature as she unequivocally and unapologetically fights for her beliefs in a crass, bold and brazen show of passion, so different from the more reflective and personal kind of internal female empowerment seen in other musicals.
By the second act, the role reversal between men and women takes center stage as the production mirrors the pattern found across the country during the 20th century. The importance of women in the traditional Georgia society is highlighted as the male characters learn to value the women as equals.
Possibly the most obvious change throughout the production is the use of color. Thanks to Ann Hould-Ward and Christopher Vergara’s brilliant design, the bold, bright costumes become a character all their own as they become a symbol of freedom and self-love. Celie spends most of the show in perfectly drab and wonderfully neutral colored dresses in a beige colored world, so drastically different than the eye-popping reds and electric purples worn by Shug Avery.
While Celie spends the first half of the production in awe of Shug Avery and her willingness to stand up to Mister, she grows into her skin and finds her confidence in a pair of bright yellow pants by the end of Act II. Opening a pants factory pushes Celie into the modern era of pants-wearing career women as she leads the women around her to do the same, leaving behind their days of abused and submissive housewives. As they stand up to the men in their life, the women become the ones quite literally “wearing the pants” as they each don an unapologetically bold color, finally proving that life should be a give and take between equals.
As the coverage of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements begins to slow down, it is crucial that the momentum of speaking the truth and standing up for justice is not lost. As each female character made her mark and fought for equality, the theater filled with thunderous applause – a heartwarming reminder that moving backwards is not an option.
While female empowerment and self-love take center stage, the production also explores other hot-button social dilemmas, including race, religion and relationships with God and the fight for female education. Although they’re all well publicized and widely debated topics, “The Color Purple” addresses them with a special kind of urgent and passionate fervor in this reincarnated musical.
The Color Purple will run at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through August 26.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy.
Morgan Politzer is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.