In their 2014-2015 season, The Justice Theater Project explored "Voices that Challenge" through works that raised questions regarding race, socioeconomic status, education, and the list goes on. The closing production to this season, The Color Purple, adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, seems to ask questions on all of these topics at once. Set in the early 1900s, when the NAACP was evolving even as Jim Crow laws continued to divide and oppress black Americans, The Color Purple follows the life of a young black woman in early 20th century America. From when she was 14 and gave birth to her second child fathered by her abusive step-father to when she became an adult challenged by the social "norms" of race and gender roles, The Color Purple shows Celie transform in the face of the many obstacles a young black woman contended with during Jim Crow's America.
As modern day America continues to perpetrate and respond to racial injustice as well as redefine gender roles in society, the temptation to accuse looms large and polarizing debates come easily. Under the artistic director of Deb Royals, JTP is full of seasoned veterans of tough-topic conversations, and they presented The Color Purple's challenging subject matter without being accusatory while still facilitating space for reconciliatory discussion, not a divisive debate.
With a company numbering over 50 performers, JTP's production was truly an ensemble production. In a total theatre approach, Royals, also the production's director, encompassed her audience by utilizing the entire performance space. As music swelled from the stage, choreographers Willie Hinton and Kristi Vincent Johnson led dancers through the aisles with vibrant dance – almost in the laps of spectators. The ardent gospel harmonies sung during the ensemble musical numbers were the highlights of Sunday's performance, though soloists shone in Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray's tough-to-sing score. Sandra Dubose and Maria Barber were vocal powerhouses as the sultry Shug Avery and robust Sofia, respectively. Barber and the female ensemble's rendition of the saucy number "Hell No!" received a particularly enthusiastic audience response. Likewise, Terra Hodge as Celie evoked applause on numerous occasions with her effective character development, her musical presence strengthened along with her character's sense of self. Darlene, Jarene, and Doris, a trio of church ladies played by Carolyn Colquitt, Lora Deneen Tatum, and J. Renee Coley, respectively, peppered the show with their twittering musical gossip. Phillip Bernard Smith led the strong male ensemble as a vile and mean Mister. Like Hodge, Smith portrayed a comprehensive character arc as Mister evolved from a cruel Act I misogynist to the philanthropic "Albert" in Act II. When his performance of "Mister's Song" provided a glimpse into the circumstances that created such a foul man, Mister raises the question "… how a man do good when all he know is bad?" In the hands of JTP, Mister, Celie, and their ensemble of diverse characters subtly but successfully challenged the audience to consider history, education, social limitations and their relationship to racial division, gender roles, crime, and poverty. It’s a tall order for three hours.
Playwright Marsha Norman's adaptation stayed true to the novel in exploring several characters over the span of a lifetime. However, such a timeline comes with a price, and poses specific challenges for a theatrical production team. The technical design of JTP's The Color Purple lacked the versatility to clearly convey the progression of such a demanding timeline, leaving it up to the viewer to deduce from the dialogue how much time had passed. The designs themselves, however, were, comprehensive and effective. Royals, wearing yet another hat as set designer, created an expansive set that immediately grounded the play in a rural southern setting. Tom Wolf's lights were effective, particularly in Act II's battle in an African village. The red wash, notably different from the cool purples and blues used to that point, was striking when coupled with Brenda Hayes lovely African costumes.
Though The Color Purple tackles the very serious subjects of gender and racial discrimination, domestic violence, and poverty, it also uncovers the joy of self-identity and community. The joy of community, between both audience and actors, rang most clearly in The Justice Theater Project's Sunday performance. Its success was evidenced by a standing ovation at the end as well as the already sold out run. Patrons who miss The Color Purple can surely expect more "Art Inspiring Change" from the company in their 2015-2016 season, opening in the fall with A Lesson Before Dying.
The Color Purple continues through Sunday, June 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.