If you’d never read Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple or seen Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 1985 adaptation or the 2005 Tony-nominated stage adaptation, you’d be forgiven for assuming, after the first couple of scenes, that the main character is Nettie, not her older sister Celie.
Nettie is studious, dreaming of the day she’ll go off to college and become a teacher. Celie, on the other hand, is pregnant with her second child, both the result of rape by her father Alphonso. Both children are given away, and she’s soon married off to an abusive farmer. She’s a passive character without the luxury of dreams or ambitions. In short, she’s unlike the vast majority of protagonists from stage, film or literature.
And that’s what makes her story so moving.
At the Fox Theatre in Atlanta this week, Adrianna Hicks plays the role of Celie that made Whoopi Goldberg famous in the film version and won LaChanze a Tony Award in 2006. It’s a role that demands a powerful voice and a demeanor that veers from pitiful to powerful, and Hicks delivers throughout.
As a young, black woman living in abusive household in 1930s, Celie has every disadvantage, and while she rages at God, she assumes that this is just what life is. The first sign of a transformation happens when she meets Sofia (Carrie Compere), the fierce wife of her step-son Harpo (J. Daughtry). Compere is another stand-out in the cast, showing Celie a feminine strength she’s never seen. A gifted physical comedian who took over the role during its Broadway revival, Campere provides most of the humor throughout the show.
And is there a better anthem rejecting domestic abuse than “Hell No!”?
The second stage of Celie’s awakening begins with the arrival of Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a singer who found success and trouble in equal measure up in Memphis. Shug was the lover of Mister, Celie’s husband, and Celie nurses her back to health when she arrives back in Georgia in terrible shape.
The story that unfolds is one of the most moving displays of feminine empowerment with a couple of sides of redemption. The music by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis (who, curiously, also co-wrote the theme song for Friends) ranges from sensual juke-joint numbers like “Brown Betty” and “Push Da Button” to gorgeous ballads “Dear God” and “The Color Purple.”
It’s good to have The Color Purple back in Atlanta, where it was first workshopped at the Alliance Theatre in 2004. It’s worth noting that one of the original producers of that show, in addition to Scott Sanders, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, was Harvey Weinstein, whose heinous actions recently brought to light make songs like “Hell No!” and musicals like The Color Purple as relevant as ever.