The 1985 film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was a huge hit, was nominated for 11 Academy awards, and was the best-grossing PC-13 film of that year. A musical version opened on Broadway in 2005, garnering 11 Tony Award nominations, winning the award for Best Actress in a Musical, having almost a thousand performances, and recovering its investment in the first year. There have been several national tours, and one has now hit Houston, with Jennifer Holliday playing Sophia, one of the leading female roles.
The storyline is somewhat controversial, as it portrays African-American men as brutal, but I prefer to linger on the rich portrayal of African-American women as patient, long-suffering, but with spirit and wisdom, and, most importantly, with a capacity to love. The play opens in 1930, and covers many ensuing decades, and there have been changes since then, though not as many as we might wish for.
The staging captures the dusty feel of the rural South, and never lets go of it, except for an extended section in Act Two, perhaps unnecessary, when receipt of a letter from Africa serves as a pretext for switching locales. The story will be familiar to many, but it is the life of Celie, a 14-year old given to a man, to serve as housekeeper- and whatever else is involved - and we follow her in a series of scenes, in the process of which Celie learns self-confidence, and then self-reliance, even love. Unfortunately, there were no programs, except for a souvenir one that cost $15, so the names of the actors are not available, except for the featured actor Jennifer Holliday. The actor playing Celie gave a glowing performance, with a sweet smile that will melt your heart. She has the audience rooting for her from the opening scene, and this provides an emotional power that carries the play to the very end.
Jennifer Holliday, of Dreamgirls fame, plays Sophia, a strong-willed woman who marries a son of Celie's bullying mate. Holliday is a gifted actress, and dives into the role of a liberated woman with delightful zest. Her big song is titled "Hell, no" and she can make that phrase by itself into a three-act play - and does. The role requires sass, style, and a huge range, and Holliday delivers on all scores.
Her husband is perforce henpecked - well, in truth, he is battered as well - and is played wonderfully, beginning as a nimble, agile youth, who is gradually transformed as Sophia wears him down (five children), and he is lured into the arms of the younger, slender, attractive girl named Squeak, played with seductive, winsome appeal. .
Celie's mate has had a long-time mistress, a lounge singer names Shug, and she and Celie become friends, and Celie learns to love for the first time. The actor playing Shug was masterful, finding her intelligence, wisdom and truthfulness, and adding considerable charm.
The actor playing the unnamed mate of Celie gives a wonderful performance, finding the bully within, but persuasive in his later-years as he realizes the error of his ways. Though he is the villain of the play, and we root against him for his brutal treatment of what we have come to think of as "our" Celie, the skill and range command respect. And he delivers wonderfully his solo song
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Celie has a deep love for her sister Nettie, who has accompanied missionaries to Africa, and whose letters to Celie have been withheld from reaching Celie. When Celie does read them, she is overjoyed to realize Nettie is still alive. In a heart-warming finale, they are reunited.
There were a few tech problems on opening night, too minor to mar our enjoyment. There is a nine-piece band, perhaps over-miked, as the volume sometimes approached the storm raging around King Lear.
There is more, subplots within subplots, but the work is essentially a character study of women, strong women, who carve what they can from a sparse larder, and yet retain the capacity for love. That is the heart of Alice Walker's vision, captured in a book by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
The verdict: A tale of courage, endurance and love is brought to vibrant life in an exciting, colorful production that finds the heart and charm of an African-American community, and delivers it with skilled performers. The Color Purple continues through March 30, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-315-2525 or contact www.hobbycenter.org.