‘The Color Purple’ at The Fisher is heart-breaking and heart lifting
DETROIT–If you’re part of a historically oppressed demographic – or even if you’re just a person who tries to focus on people’s potential for kindness and empathy – this year has been brutal. Between white supremacists openly marching in Charlottesville and planning to come to Michigan, to Hollywood’s seemingly endless supply of real-life sexual assault and harassment stories, and horrifying mass shootings, it’s been harder than ever to find reason to hope.
Which may be why the touring production of The Color Purple, now in Detroit for a limited engagement at the Fisher Theater, feels so electric, and so emotionally satisfying in this moment.
Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, and set in rural Georgia in the early twentieth century, The Color Purple tells the story of Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a poor young black woman who’s repeatedly told she’s ugly – especially when compared to her studious, pretty, beloved sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) – and who’s been twice impregnated by the man she believes is her father (J.D. Webster). The man gives both of Celie’s babies away, then brokers a deal with a gruff, mean, widowed farmer named Mister (Gavin Gregory) to marry her off.
The story spans 40 years in Celie’s life, and the show’s wonderfully rich music (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman) nods to popular genres of the early twentieth century, including boogie woogie, ragtime, blues, and gospel.
Director John Doyle’s stripped down, abstract set design – beautifully, thoughtfully illuminated by lighting designer Jane Cox – involves a backdrop of three soaring towers of wood in the state of decay, with wooden chairs affixed to them in diagonals all the way up. Indeed, in Doyle’s pared down, highly theatrical, laser-focused approach, chairs like these provide much of what’s needed for the actors to create the show’s inspiring, brutal, sexy, hysterical, and heartbreaking world. Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward provides visual markers of the show’s era, and the economic context of these characters’ lives, while employing a washed out palette that changes and becomes part of the story.
A terrific trio of church ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, Brit West) act as a kind of no-nonsense, fast-talking, gossipy Greek chorus, delightfully filling in missing pieces of exposition, particularly in the show’s first act. Compere, meanwhile, first brought the house down on opening night with the stirring anthem “Hell No!”, wherein Sofia proclaims that she will never put up with a man abusing her (which makes the spirit-crushing beatings that come later for Sofia, following an arrest, all the more terrible); and near the show’s end, Compere gets to have no-holds-barred, joyous fun with the bluntly sexy duet (with J. Daughtry, as Harpo) “Any Little Thing.” Stewart, as Suge, also gets a chance to steam up the Fisher with a crazy-seductive juke joint number “Push da Button”; but she also brings quiet emotion to “Too Beautiful for Words,” in which Celie, for the first time, hears someone praise her; and “What About Love?”, in which Shug and Celie realize their feelings for each other transcend friendship.
Hicks, of course, is the show’s north star, and what an absolutely fantastic performance she gives. We meet Celie as a young girl who’s resigned to her terrible circumstances; and as Mister’s young wife, she simply tries to detach, do her work, and keep her head down, putting up with his abuse. But Hicks then expertly delivers us through Celie’s complex emotional journey – with sensitivity, sharp humor, and a tangible sense of wonder at the evolving formation of Celie’s own personhood. Her vocals are also a knockout, of course – I defy you to not be moved by “Somebody Gonna Love You,” which Celie quietly sings to her just-born baby before Pa takes it away from her; and “I’m Here” is a raw, heart-soaring pronouncement of Celie’s presence as she takes her place in the broader world – so that by show’s end, you’ll wish everyone could see this show.
Because The Color Purple ultimately depicts humans finding their way from a place of isolation and pain to one of connection and love. And I can’t think of a better time for that story to be told.