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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Color Purple

"I'm poor, I'm black, I may be ugly, but I'm here."— Celie
color purple
Adrianna Hicks as Celie (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The Color Purple has been around for quite a few years. When published in 1982, novelist Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize. By 1985, it was a movie and since then it has been a Tony Award-winning musical. The 2018 revival, now playing at the Kennedy Center, is enjoyable enough but the production lacks the punch it might have had a decade or two ago.

The story is simple, in the way that a fairy tale is simple. Set in Georgia between 1909 and 1949, poor Celie is forced to give up her babies and suffer the sins of slavery as well as subservience to Mister, a chauvinist brute she detests. Act One is dark and miserable; Act Two shows hope.

As Celie, Adrianna Hicks gives a totally plausible performance. Meek and mild, she sticks her head out front, holds her shoulders back and looks like someone who has been beaten down by a rough life. But in Act Two, with enlightenment and encouragement from Sofia (the brazen Carrie Compere), Celie comes out of her shell. With diffidence now gone, she fights back against the conditions confronted by African Americans, and also her oppressive bed-mate.

With the confidence inspired in her by tough-as-nails Sofia, and Mister's sometime love interest, the wickedly ambitious Shug Avery (a raunchy Carla R. Stewart ), Celie happily discovers that her beloved sister and children are alive and well in Africa. This adds to her happiness, as does the realization that she too can stand up to men.

If, in terms of story, this seems like a pastiche— well, it is. Is it believable? No it isn't. Which is not to say that slavery, chauvinism and the all round mistreatment of African American women did not and does not exist. It did and it does.
The background on stage is compelling. John Doyle's set, comprised of chairs hanging from three strips of criss-crossed wood planks rising from the stage to the flies, are put to use in different ways: as seating in church, at an Easter feast, and as symbols of tools heavy and hard enough to work the soil. Lighting by Jane Cox is minimal and Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are suitably simple and, in the over-worked and somewhat dated song "Miss Celie's Pants," symbolic.

Where The Color Purple succeeds is in its exemplary singing, especially performances by the three female leads and by the men when they sing as a chorus. There is a wide range of emotion on stage—From the sweet and innocent opening number "Huckleberry Pie," sung by Celie and her sister Nettie (N'Jameh Camara). . . to the company's gospel-style rendition of "Mysterious Ways" . . .to Shug's randy rendition of "Push da Button" and Celie's tear-jerking final solo, "I'm Here".

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The Color Purple Based on Alice Walker's novel of the same title, adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman.
Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
Direction, set design and musical staging by John Doyle.
Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design by Jane Cox
Cast: Darnell Abraham (Adam); Amar Atkins (Guard);Kyle E. Baird (Bobby/Buster); Angela Birchett (Church Lady); N'Jameh Camara (Nettie); Carrie Compere (Sofia); Jay Donnell (Harpo); Erica Durham (Squeak); Gavin Gregory (Mister); Adrianna Hicks (Celie); Bianca Horn (Church Lady); Mekhai Lee (Grady); Gabrielle Reid (Olivia); C. E. Smith (Preacher/Ol' Mister); Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery); J. D. Webster (Pa); Brit West (Church Lady).
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Kennedy Center, July 31 to August 26, 2018. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at August 2, 2018 performance.

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