CenterStage is one of my favorite parts about living in this glorious hometown that is the ‘ville. For a reasonable price, you have the opportunity to see a show-stopping, all black production of The Color Purple, leaving the JCC on Dutchman’s Lane feeling invigorated, empowered, and entirely enriched. Transformative tales are often times the best kind. This is a musical centered on enduring love, trying times of conviction, and reversals for both underdogs and villains alike. Prepare for both heart and spirit to be electrified. Warning: You’re absolutely going to love this one.
Even before the actors walk onto the stage, there is a gorgeous mix of majestic lighting hues setting the stage, with fuschia, violet, and sapphire glinting across tufts of haystacks. Theresa Bagan masters lighting design with this production. Her gift of illumination can add emotional ambiance and grit to a scene at a moment’s notice. I had the fortune of interviewing lead actress Tymika Prince, who not merely inhabits the role of Celie, but commands it with keen prowess. Ms. Prince concentrates a quiet, billowing intensity that can split your soul in two with her anguish, but also have you rooting endlessly for her to triumph. In her spectrum as a 12 year-old girl to an older woman finally redeemed, Ms. Prince does the intricate role justice with true authenticity. She utterly revolutionizes from a beaten down victim to a towering oak of a woman, declaring her own liberation. At a time of emancipation from the shackles of Celie’s submissiveness, exotic, vibrant African drapes shift above with all poignant import. Ms. Bagan casts a light on Celie, washing over her, restoring her resolve. Meanwhile, Emily Gordon-Trowel's brilliant, evocative choreography further echoes this major transformation.
Every detail plays a part in leading you through this heartrending metamorphosis, including Donna Lawrence-Downs’ costume design choices. Shajuana Motley’s Shug Avery is sensually confident with every distinctive shake of her hips, but particularly when donning a fierce black nightclub ensemble that twinkles mischievously in “Push Da Button.” Ms. Motley fans plush orange feathers as she shimmies, reveling in all her enthralling glory.
It is so important to have a cast of 30 African Americans putting on this show, because there is a unique kind of energy that throbs. Everyone is fiercely passionate to be a part of this emotional arc. Rush Trowel expertly guides thoughtful, individual performances out of each of his actors, resulting in a musical experience that stirs and awakens your moral fiber. This is musical theater at its most thrilling state. You are left mended and motivated in the process. You learn that "the more we wonder, the more [we] love."
The Color Purple is for all of us who at some point in our lives have felt defeated, made to feel like less than we are. Patricia Mathison’s Sofia with all her sassy audacity will have you cheering “Hell No.” Dare to assert your claim to the world. She is one of Celie’s most instrumental role models while she uproariously makes men quaver in their boots. Ms. Mathison’s Sofia is unapologetically Sofia, which is what makes her such a terrific character. Everyone in the audience was howling with laughter when Mathison’s Sofia has her charismatic (albeit sometimes humanly imperfect) husband Harpo excellently played by Marcus Fisher, exclaiming, “Baby, she beat me too, baby, she beat me too!” I also sincerely loved Erica Denise, Alycia Underwood, and Angela Williams-Buckner as church ladies who were feisty with finger-snapping cadence.
Gordon L. Crawford as Celie’s husband Mister is not even named so he can be enigmatically ruthless. Mr. Crawford snarls with abandoned menace. The scene where he separates the sisters will have you crying along with Celie. What makes some of the pain all the more visceral between loving sisters Celie and Nettie separating is that Frances Lewis instills Nettie with such ideal youthful exuberance. There is an affecting juxtaposition between Celie and Nettie daydreaming with innocent plans for their future against the looming backdrop of harsher realities about to hit them. Their unwavering sisterly bond resonates beautifully and anchors the love at the root of the play.
One of the best parts about this play is Celie is not the only one who awaits the possibility of redemption from a harrowing world. Even a man like Crawford’s Mister who brandishes his brutality at life can amend his ways and change his fate.
This production of The Color Purple is more moving than any I have seen. It earned a standing ovation and lots of rave comments from audience members afterward, all fired up from the incredible show we witnessed. I urge you not to miss this one.
This Alice Walker novel turned musical all-black production of The Color Purple will be showing March 20, 22, 27, 29, 31, and April 3 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC Linker Auditorium. For daytime performances, check out the shows on March 23, 30, and April 6 at 2:00 p.m. Rush tickets are limited, and are $10 per ticket for evening performances on Sunday, Monday and Thursday. All other tickets are $18 per person in advance and $20 at the door.
Featuring music and lyrics written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, you will not be disappointed. The harmonies are stunning.
Dial 502-459-0660 or visit CenterStageJCC.org for more information on tickets for this show or future shows. There is an exciting 2014-2015 season ahead, where Chicago will be the next CenterStage smash hit (June 26 through July 13, 2014).
Top Photo: Courtesy of CenterStage