The Color Purple: SM Goes to Broadway

 

[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!

 

Still here?

 

Okay, let’s do this.

 

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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.

 
tma

Yeah. 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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*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.

 
danielle-brooks-and-meI 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.
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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.

 

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A Much Too Personal Movie Review of the First Ten Minutes of “Fill the Void”

 

“Are – are you going to be all right?”

“You mean, like, ever?”

My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”

I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”

We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.

 

*

 

I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.

Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.

It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.

But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:

“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”

 

*

 

I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.

I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.

 

Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.

Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.

I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.

 

Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.

Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.

 

Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.

Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.

 

*

 

I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.

I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!

I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.

Ten minutes of that movie. Jeez.

 

 

 

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