Thunderous applause paused “The Color Purple” at Maine State Music Theater several times on opening night. It was clear from the first moment that this musical was genuine, raw, and truthful. Those lucky enough to be there could feel it in the air- a bright, brilliant beam of light shining on us all,
The Color Purple is based on the novel by Alice Walker- go find it. I want to tell you about the heart and you can and should read the book yourself.
The living beating heart of this show is the women. From the moment two little girls are on a step playing a hand-clapping game to the last resounding AMEN, this story is about beating the odds.
Redemption blooms here in glorious ways in the darkest corners where secrets go unnoticed. “The Color Purple” at MSMT should be noticed and celebrated.
Tavia Rivée as Nettie, Maiesha McQueen as Sofia and DeQuina Moore as Shug are three strong stage “sisters” whose passion for the indomitable women they portray is palpable. Each in their own way shares a bit of their self-awareness with young Celie (Jaden Dominique).
DeQuina Moore as Shug Avery brings the Queen Honeybee back to the hive and every man, woman and breathing thing in her sphere wants her, loves her, or worships her from afar. Moore sold every song, every motion when she was onstage and left that lingering memory of her vibrant presence each time she made an exit.
Dequina Moore (Shug) and Jaden Dominque (Celie) had the audience in tears with their duet “What about Love?” This reviewer was happy to see part of the story restored in the musical. The unlikely love that Celie feels for her husband’s long-time mistress and that it is reciprocated is an important part of the journey, and the gorgeous duet a perfect ending to Act One’s emotional rollercoaster.
Maiesha McQueen (Sofia) packs a real wallop with the anti-domestic violence fight-song "Hell No!" The audience was cheering and shouting in support of Sofia standing strong. Each time she came on stage we were rooting for her. The love poured back across the footlights especially in the second act when Sofia appears to be beaten down at last and then rebounds once again, stronger than ever.
Maiesha McQueen (Sofia) and Lawrence Flowers (Harpo) were hilarious and delightful in the ‘reunited and it feels so good’ duet “Any Little Thing” in the second act and left no doubts about their attraction, nay – lust- for one another.
Tavia Rivée (Nettie)is Celie’s beloved sister, From the start we know and feel the devotion between them. It is Nettie’s memory that keeps Celie alive with hope and the remembrance of love. Rivée is a joyous presence in her scenes in Africa, narrating the letters to Celie, and the wonderful surprise at the end. (I already told you to go read the book.)
The joy of the musical resonates with anyone who has been victimized and rises to shout again in Celie. Jayden Dominque as Celie brings a level of nuance and subtly to a role that could be just another beaten, raped, and abused woman. She uses her body and posture to show the defensive stance Celie needs to protect herself. And Celie does need to protect herself. Celie starts out shy and terrified, Celie is abused in every way a woman can be abused.
When Jayden Dominique takes to the stage in Act Two as a Celie who refuses to stay beaten-down, she is the embodiment of triumph. Her solo “I’m Here” found the audience on its feet cheering, hollering support, and celebrating right along with her. She, the youngest actress to play Celie ever, held the hearts of the audience in her hands and when Celie triumphed in the song , the place went wild. The Color Purple, you see, is a musical that if you love it long and loud, it loves you right back. Like Celie- it never gives up hope.
Then there is Kelvin Roston Jr, (Mister). Mister undergoes a transformation in Roston’s hands as significant as Celie’s. He is smooth and has a commanding presence on the stage yet carries an undertone of longing and need. He wants approval but only knows what he has been taught. “So tell me how a man do good when all he know is bad??” he laments, in “Mister’s Song.” Mister does good , so much good as he atones, or tries to, for what went before and Roston makes us believe all of it.
The entire cast was superb, a skilled ensemble that offered every part of the story devotion and truth. They dance, they sing- they do it all expertly as they bring Alice Walker’s gritty novel gloriously to life.
Director E. Faye Butler brings joyous empathy and inspiration to the entire team. Alice Walker’s book is one of the most challenged in schools and libraries for its brutal honesty and that is the very reason it should be read and read again. Director E Fay Butler gave each cast member a copy of the book, offering them the back story, and the details that cannot be seen in a script. This intuitive choice on the part of the Director is surely why every single moment was unique and spot on.
Her deft hand never missed a beat creating moments of emotional intensity yet tempering them with a gentle touch. There's a balance between the light and dark here that was missing in previous versions, and I credit that to E. Faye Butler for her devotion to presenting the raw story with authenticity and love.
The dance, choreographed by the inimitable Flo Walker-Harris, is seamless. She uses the variety of music, Jazz, Ragtime. Gospel, African, and Blues, to further the story, to add life, sensuality, and sometimes even a threat to move the show along. From the slinky, sexy dances of Shug Avery to the men’s predatory movements and poses in “Big Dog,” to the Olinka tribal dance in Africa, Walker- Harris enhances the production without distracting from the point. Kudos to her for finding the funny moments and allowing her dancers to shine , move, and flow across the stage like they barely touched the ground. It was stunning and delightful work.
Each piece of the musical blended into the others complementing rather than distracting. The lighting and projections made scene changes flawless and unobtrusive. We moved from church to Mister’s home to the fields of Africa in a wink. Every technical aspect added to the layers of beauty in “The Color Purple.”
The costumes, coordinated by Kathleen Payton- Brown, were true to the times. An audience member in front of me commented that “even the shoes are authentic.” The Church Ladies; Nyla Watson (Doris), Tarra Conner Jones (Jarene), La’Nette Wallace (Darlene); just had to show up in their Sunday dresses and you knew what they were about and in all their glory. The burst of color when Shug Avery arrives is brilliant, drawing the eye immediately. Brava to the team that manages the clothing and hair, fits, and dresses this show, often unsung but the icing on the cake.
Joy, love, and hope are interwoven throughout “The Color Purple” – the lifelines that see each character through in their own way. For anyone attending the takeaway to remember is a stanza from Celie’s triumphant finale:
“Most of all, I'm thankful for
Lovin' who I really am I’m beautiful. Yes, I’m Beautiful. And I’m here.”
Now find yourself a mirror and repeat to yourself every day.
And get a ticket to “The Color Purple” for an evening that will soothe your weary heart and delight your soul.
Can I get an “AMEN” somebody?
The Color Purple is based on the novel by Alice Walker, with
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Alice Willis, and Stephen Bray
THE COLOR PURPLE runs from July 20-August 6, 2022 at MSMT's Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus, 1 Bath Road, Brunswick, ME www.msmt.org 207-725-8769. Don’t miss it.