To see anew in a season of renewal comes as a gift. And Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of “The Color Purple” (through May 7) makes it easy to feel awash with theatergoer gratitude.
It’s been four decades since the publication of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel. With a book by Marsha Norman and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray music (such stirring songs, such “can we get an amen?” numbers), this revival of the 2015 musical points the way back to the book, promising that lessons still reside there.
How do I know? Because director Timothy Douglas and his exquisite cast and gifted crew bring grace, grit and hope to the story of Celie, Nettie, Shug, Mister, Sophia, Harpo and the community that buoys and bears witness to Celie’s trauma as well as her triumphs. There is penance, earned forgiveness and redemption, to boot.
Celie’s personal epiphanies and resilience pre-date current trends about self-love and self-care, and underscore what a rooted, “womanist” thinker late Black Arts Movement writer Walker was — and remains.
At the musical’s start, Celie (Maiesha McQueen) is 14 years old; she is big but doesn’t want to take up space. She is pregnant with her second child by the same father — hers. A Greek chorus of church ladies furthers this and other aspects of the story. Pa will take her newborn to God-knows-where like he did the time before. If Pa (Steven Rich) is an abuser, Celie’s sister Nettie (Elexis Morton), is her lifeline. Their friendship is an unyielding cord.
Widower Albert “Mister” Johnson (David Aron Damane) comes, riding crop in hand, hoping to secure Nettie as his wife; he leaves with Celie. Later, when Nettie seeks refuge with Celie and Mister, he sends her away after she rebuffs him. Nettie promises to write Celie but never does. Celie resigns herself to the bitter work of tending Mister’s farm.
Throughout Act I’s miseries, there are hints of possibility. Mister’s son Harpo (Torrey Linder) falls for the wonderfully willful Sofia, who has no problem opening a can of whup-ass on Harpo when he tries to beat her, the way his father brutalizes Celie.
Taylor Washington imbues Sofia with a fierceness beyond nature. She does not bend easily, which is why her run-in with racism (early in Act II) remains (regardless of version) one of “The Color Purple” and its incarnations’ most crushing incidents. She is nearly broken (physically) by a canted system, its beneficiaries (in this instance, a mayor’s wife) and its nightmarish traps.
The arrival of the nightclub singer Shug Avery (Angela Wildflower) remains a catalyst. Celie’s care of Mister’s love interest turns to affection and then romance. Act I ends with Shug and Celie’s moving duet “What About Love?” and Shug’s revelation of the cache of Nettie’s letters that Mister has hidden from Celie.
If Act One ends with Celie’s discovery of Mister’s low-down dirtiest act, Act II comes with the measured ascent of Celie, her family, her community.
There is no shortage of beautiful, differently timbered voices here – from McQueen’s and Wildflower’s to the harmonies of the communal trio of Darlene (Christine Wanda), Doris (Ne’Lashee) and Jarene (Domonique Paton). The ensemble numbers (choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi) take the audience to church. (A special nod of appreciation goes to at times dulcet, other times dauntless and delightful work of the orchestra led by keyboardist S. Renee Clark.)
In 2009, the Broadway touring company’s version of the musical came to the Buell. I recall being underwhelmed even as the show leaned into sumptuous spectacle. It wasn’t until the Aurora Fox’s production, wisely directed by donnie l. betts, that “The Color Purple” reveled in and revealed its more poignant insights. The Denver Center Theatre Company’s version has the intimacy of that more modest production but delivers big-souled splendor.
Tony Cisek’s set achieves states of grace all the while maintaining a deceptive simplicity. (Those lucky enough to see last season’s “Choir Boy” have been beneficiaries of Cisek’s shrewd and elegant support of a show’s emotional ambitions.) Great, slatted wooden walls evoke the siding of a shotgun shack. Its dun color, echoed in the floorboards, hints at the somberness of Celie’s life. Almost lost in the gray-brown of a wall, a lone tree reaches its spindly branches upward. But there are a few potent and poignant tricks up the scenic designer’s sleeve. And costume designer Trevor Bowen plies muted and colorful fabrics to resourceful effect.
The slats will open and close like shutters, bringing in bold light (the vivid work of Peter Maradudin), bringing in a faraway Africa. Walker is of an artistic generation whose hunger for and grasp of Africa’s meaning for the descendants of the Middle Passage is often sewn into their art. That profound connection is subtly made here with the opening of those slats during the reading of Nettie’s letters.
In rehashing the many, many plot twists of “The Color Purple,” the iconic show would seem to tilt toward melodrama, in which dastardliness and sensuality, church folk high-mindedness and their gossipy habits move the action. Yet McQueen and the full ensemble earn the audience’s tears — yes, bring tissue — and joys. Celie’s anthemic “I’m Here” received an opening-night ovation (and it is not the final number).
In December, the musical will get its big-screen close-up. It’ll arrive in movie theaters with some Denver threads to pull on. The music is the same, but playwright Marcus Gardley (author of Denver Theatre Company’s world premiere “Black Odyssey” in 2014) adapted the novel. When Mister, played by Danny Glover, appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, the characterization of a Black male villain invited some vociferous pushback — for reasons thoughtful, boneheaded and reflective of the rise of hip-hop and black film. This version addresses those quandaries.
Does “The Color Purple” earn its pleasures, its perhaps tidy yet bravura conclusion? Yes, and then some.
IF YOU GO
“The Color Purple.” Based on the novel by Alice Walker. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Featuring Maiesha McQueen, Elexis Morton, David Aron Damane, Angela Wildflower, Torrey Linder, Taylor Washington, Elise Frances Daniells, Christine Wanda, Ne’Lashee and Domonique Paton. Through May 7 at the Wolf Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. Denvercenter.org and 303-893-4100.
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