When The Color Purple premiered on Broadway in 2005, New York Times critic Ben Brantley complained that the stage musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was overstuffed—that it tried too hard to do too much too fast, and suffered as a result. “Watching this beat-the-clock production summons the frustrations of riding through a picturesque stretch of country in a supertrain,” Brantley wrote. “The landscape looks seductively lush and varied; the local populace seems lively and inviting. . . . But it all passes by in a watercolor blur.”
Sure enough, this summer, in London, director John Doyle put on an authorized revival that cut 30 minutes from the original show, paring it down to what Doyle perceived as its essentials. (From what I’ve read, it sounds a lot like Court Theatre’s gracefully astringent Porgy and Bess of 2011.)
You won’t find that sort of Doylean economy in the version of The Color Purple currently running at the Mercury Theater.
Though he’s working with constricted square footage by Broadway standards, the Mercury’s L. Walter Stearns doesn’t hold back on book or score, scope or time, comedy or tragedy, dancing or singing—or on Frances Maggio’s progressively wilder costumes, for that matter. For better and for worse, Stearns’s directorial approach is epitomized by one of Walker’s characters, Sofia: a big, lush, confident lady built for comfort, not for speed.
Sofia figures into the story as a sometime daughter-in-law of Celie, the innately generous soul at its center. During the long first act of The Color Purple, Celie undergoes the trials of a female Job. As if growing up poor and black in the Jim Crow south during the first decades of the 20th century weren’t bad enough in itself, she’s raped on a regular basis by her stepfather—a man ironically known as “Pa”—giving birth twice by the time she’s 14 years old. Pa takes both babies away from Celie, telling her only that he’s getting “rid” of them. The single light in her life is her sister, Nettie, whose beauty and intelligence seem to immunize her from Pa’s violence. When a similarly vicious farmer called Mister comes to court Nettie, Pa rebuffs him and offers Celie instead. Mister takes the deal, reasoning that though Celie may be ugly, she can be made to work. Unrelentingly. And so begins another horrific chapter in Celie’s life. Her frequent prayers to God get more and more combative as time goes on.
But The Color Purple is ultimately about deliverance, which arrives in profusion during the second act, dragging a considerable amount of hoke in its wake. With its parade of miraculous reunions and redemptions, the climactic scene plays like an episode from the old This Is Your Life TV series. Still, the biblical dynamic also allows for some fascinating transformations. Keithon Gipson gives a particularly rich performance as Mister, taking his character on a complex journey from angry self-regard to tranquil self-knowledge. Evan Tyrone Martin is alternately funny and compelling in the role of Mister’s son Harpo, who has to figure out what to do with the notions of masculinity he’s inherited. And Jasondra Johnson’s Sofia moves from standard-issue sass to something considerably deeper when she discovers the true and painful limits of her strength.
By far the most intriguing motion, though, is the one that brings Celie into the arms of Shug Avery, a sexually charismatic juke joint chanteuse—and intuitive pantheist—who becomes the unlikely love of her life. The musical is a little timorous about the physical aspect of their relationship, but the point is clear enough, and Adrienne Walker makes Shug’s appeal palpable.
If only Trisha Jeffrey could do the same for Celie. During the show’s purgatorial early passages, Jeffrey acts as if she thought Celie weren’t just abused but mentally challenged. She goes wide-eyed and round-shouldered in a fair imitation of disparaging old black stereotypes; she spends half her time hugging people, like Geoffrey Rush playing the sweet demented pianist in the movie Shine. I was delighted when Celie started coming out of her shell, simply because Jeffrey’s bad posture was so annoyingly cartoonish.
And that brings up the queasiest aspect of Stearns’s production: its occasional tendency to shade from cultural archetype into caricature. As Richard Wright once observed about Zora Neale Hurston’s stories, it’s an often untenably thin line that separates a nostalgic vision of African-American rural life from a cruel burlesque of same. Most of the time, Stearns and company tread that line pretty well. A trio of busybodies, for instance, push cliche into high art over the course of the show. Sometimes, however, the cliche remains stubbornly in place. I wonder if Doyle’s edited production wasn’t at heart a cunning attempt to sidestep the problem entirely.