Could one really swoon over “The Color Purple,” the Broadway musical derived from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel and Steven Spielberg’s subsequent film?
Director and choreographer Lewis Whitlock makes the answer a thrilling “Yes!”
Whitlock’s production of the musical is one of aching pain and luminous beauty. His staging, which had its boisterous opening Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, soars because he grounds the story in history.
“Color Purple” also achieves its excellence because of its design (Seitu Jones did the effective minimalist set, Trevor Bowen created the evocative costumes and Michael Kittel lit it well); its music, directed by Gary Hines, and its cast, which includes Regina Marie Williams in an electrifying turn as ravenous singer Shug Avery, T. Mychael Rambo as the brute-turned-heartbreaking-supplicant Mister and Aimee Bryant as Celie, the 14-year-old mother of two who is repeatedly raped by her stepfather.
Set between 1909 and 1949 in rural Georgia, “Color Purple” draws on Celie’s letters. After her mother’s death, her stepfather, Pa (Rodney Patrick Fair), gives her to Mister (Rambo), whose own wife had died and who needed someone to clean house and raise his children. Celie, a lonely soul who writes letters to God, becomes painfully separated from her sister, Nettie (Jamaica Meyer), who travels as a missionary to Africa. Nettie writes her letters that Mister, a rapist and abuser, hides.
The community around them includes Shug and Sofia (the ethereal and witty Thomasina Petrus), who is married to Mister’s son, Harpo (Darius Dotch, in a noble turn); Mister’s father, Ol’ Mister (the tremulously graceful Dennis Spears); a church soloist (fiery Jamecia Bennett); an eager-beaver aspiring entertainer aptly named Squeak (the delightful Joetta Wright), and a gossipy Greek chorus (the fabulous trio of Ginger Commodore, Samia Butler and Shirley Marie Graham).
Whitlock gets sterling performances from most of his 19-member cast (12 of whom are new to Park Square), but it is his interpretation that distinguishes Park Square’s show, and makes it, dare I say, superior to others that have come before. He grounds the story more clearly in the aftermath of slavery.
Mister is an overseer-style character who walks about with a whip that he cracks at the drop of a hat. Offered Celie, he circles and inspects her as if she were on an auction block. Through his choices, Whitlock lets us see a community that is trying to escape the psychic degradation and trauma that they carry in their bodies, in their language and in their quick resort to violence.
Whitlock’s “The Color Purple” underscores the fact that this is a show about family and redemption, about people swimming in a sea of trauma. They dress up and hide their hurts. They find solace in stately church processions. They hold out hope for personal redemption after mistakes and wrongs. In other words, Whitlock has shown that Walker’s bitter story is about all of us.