[NOTE: I reviewed this play several months ago but couldn’t post it at the time. The Tony Award-winning lead actress, Cynthia Erivo, is still anchoring the show and she is phenomenal. Some other cast members have moved on.]
Before I start this review about this particular play, I want to clarify some of my experience and thoughts about Broadway and theater culture in general. Because this is a pop culture column, and theater is a culture. It’s not one that I’ve ever been a part of, so of course that’s going to color my interpretation and opinions of any Broadway play that I see.
Feel free to skip down to the * * * break if you just came for the review!
Okay, let’s do this.
I don’t mean “theater culture” as in all the fun times and traditions that go on behind the scenes between stage actors, because I am so far removed from that part of it that I’m not even going to pretend to be qualified to opine on it. I’m pretending to be qualified to opine about theater-going culture, the culture of regularly going to see Broadway plays, either cheaply or by paying significant sums of money — just considering that a routine thing to do.
For me, it is absolutely not. I’ve now seen three Broadway shows in my life, including this one.
One was a birthday present when I turned five (yes, twenty years ago) — my dad took me to see Beauty and the Beast. Of course, that was pretty much wasted on a five-year-old, even an adorably precocious one such as myself. All I remember is the moment when the Beast turned into the prince; it was basically magic.
I saw my second show, West Side Story, as a perk of being accepted to the full-scholarship Macaulay Honors College — you know, the CUNY program designed to poach potential Ivy League students into attending CUNY colleges by bribing us with money, laptops, and free Broadway shows. (It worked.)
The third was this one, The Color Purple, for which I copyedited a number of posts for a friend’s Broadway blog (shout-out to BroadwayWiz!) in exchange for a ticket.
You may have noticed a common thread among these experiences: I didn’t pay for my ticket. And I point that out because I think that that’s the crux of my exclusion from theater-going culture: money.
Broadway is expensive entertainment.
I don’t just mean the Hamilton craze and $1000 tickets (though I do find it sadly ironic that a play about the value of diversity and immigrants is being effectively limited to the wealthy, mostly white elites). I also mean that it’s especially expensive when you come from a big family, like I do. Seven kids, two parents. There are things you just don’t do a lot when your family is nine people and your parents are teachers. To name a couple: you don’t eat out at restaurants much, and you don’t go to Broadway shows. Because take the price of a meal or a ticket, and multiply it by nine.
So I didn’t grow up going to Broadway shows, and as a result, whenever I’ve got a few extra bucks and am looking for an activity or some entertainment, it doesn’t even enter my mind to consider going to a Broadway show. Like, I’ve got a $5 movie theater in my neighborhood. The price on my ticket for West Side Story was $110. Do you know how many movies I could see and how much sushi I could buy with that money? Or how many clothes or other other stuff that isn’t a one-time ephemeral experience?
A lot. The answer is “a lot.” So for me, Broadway has just always lived in a zone in my mind that is simply outside of my pay grade. And yeah, I know there are ways to get cheaper tickets, but some of them take a lot of effort, and it just isn’t something that occurs to me, because of that zone.
* * *
So with that in mind, what did I think of The Color Purple, the Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway?
Well, I think a lot of things. Firstly, I’ve read the book, and I absolutely love it. It is one of very, very few “classic” works of literature that I have genuinely enjoyed and actually recommend to other people instead of warning them away.
In case you haven’t read it, it’s a story that begins horrifically and ends as one of the most empowering feminist narratives that I have ever read. It’s the story of Celie, a young black girl who has been raped multiple times by her father* and borne him two children by the time she’s 16. She hasn’t seen them since she gave birth and believes he may have killed them. (I know, this is literally the worst beginning ever. Blowing up the planet would be less depressing.) Then, in order to save her sister, Nettie, from having to marry an abusive man, she agrees to marry him herself.
The story then follows Celie’s married life, the people she meets, the influences they have on her, and her slowly-developing sense of self-worth as she becomes more and more fed up with her husband and her life circumstances. She learns to draw strength from the people around her and ultimately from herself and her own inner confidence and value, and finally stands up to her husband and her community, and it is GLORIOUS.
*Turns out the man she thought was her father was actually her stepfather, but that’s no less horrific.
The play sticks with the same basic storyline, characters, and emotional beats as the book, although I do think that it downplayed the emergent lesbian aspect of Celie’s character. Other versions, such as the 1985 movie, have probably done that too, because the book’s portrayal of lesbianism and frank discussion of female sexuality were extremely progressive for its time, and the mediums of film and stage probably weren’t ready for it.
But regardless, Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie is amazing. She is tough, vulnerable, quietly rebellious, with sharp comic timing that adds a laugh or two to some of the bleakest scenes. Erivo completely deserved the Tony Award she won for the role. Even though there are many times when the men do the talking and have all the agency in Celie’s early life, she is always in the foreground of the stage, well-lit and prominent, so that we never forget that this is her story, not theirs.
Another standout performance was Sofia, played by Danielle Brooks, better known as Taystee from Orange Is The New Black [NOTE: Sophia is currently played by Carrie Compere]. Sofia is big, loud, brash, and is the first woman we meet in the play who immediately talks back to the men and takes no crap from them. She utterly rejects the accepted social norms that give men the right to beat their wives and girlfriends, and she walks out when her boyfriend hits her. It’s so refreshing in the context of the play, where so far all we’ve seen is women being crushed under men’s authority and only able to resist in quiet, subtle ways.
I got to take a picture with her after the show. That’s her face on the poster between us. Photocred to BroadwayWiz!
The book, of course, is not a musical. And honestly, I preferred the speaking parts of the play to the musical parts. This is partly because I have a general preference for good dialogue, and partly because I felt like something was off with the acoustics of the theater. It was too small for the huge voices of the cast. Solos were usually fine, but when more than one person was singing or if they were belting at the top of their lungs, the words seemed to all crash together, and my friend and I could hardly ever tell what they were saying in the group songs. I really wanted subtitles. (I had the same thought when I saw West Side Story. Someone really needs to invent a subtitle projector for theater.) Maybe it was a fluke mic problem, maybe it sounded different down in the orchestra seats (we were on the mezzanine), but whatever it was, I was glad there was a lot of speaking to augment the music. If I’d paid for my ticket (about $75), I might have been disappointed. So I’d suggest that if you want to see it, listen to the cast album first so that you’re more familiar with the songs than we were.
Lastly, I’d like to mention that there is a pretty strong religious theme in the play — the title is a reference to how one of the characters uses the existence of good or beautiful things in the world, like the color purple, to explain her belief in God. I’ve never been the biggest fan of that sort of philosophy, where you attribute anything good to God and just kind of handwave all the bad. So that aspect of it didn’t really resonate with me, but others may have found it uplifting. I was more inspired by the strength and resilience of the characters, who fought through an oppressive society to ultimately find happiness and support each other through some of the most awful situations.
Bottom line: This was an excellent production with riveting performances and it held my attention easily the entire time. Those who like musicals might like it more than I did, especially if they listen to the songs in advance, but there is plenty of dialogue for those of us who prefer that. It is a more expensive show, so if you can get cheaper tickets, go for it. If you can’t, I hope I’ve done a decent job letting you know what you’re in for so you can decide if it’s worth the full price. The book is less expensive though, and definitely worth it.
Sarah Meira (SM) Rosenberg is a former auto mechanic and current jill-of-all-writing/editing-trades. She has a degree in Creative Writing, her very own Amazon author page, a podcast with some fellow nerdgirls, and a gofundme where anyone can commission her to write about anything — movies, TV, books, sports, you name it. Got anything you want me to review? Feel free to commission it through the GoFundMe! Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy.