The Color Purple first made its mark on the world in book form. Three years later, in 1985, it was made into a critically acclaimed film. And, twenty years after that, it opened as a Broadway musical with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The story has lived many lives, and yet it still has the power to touch audiences, a fact that’s more than evident from North Carolina Theatre’s current production, onstage now through April 30 in the intimate A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater.
The production, directed and choreographed by Christopher D. Betts, spans more than thirty years in the life of the story’s heroine, Celie (Bre Jackson), and plays out against a simple but sturdy rustic wooden set. That set is a nice metaphor for Celie herself. She is a character who has faced many hardships, weathered each one, and somehow, against all odds, manages to stand strong.
Of course, as anyone familiar with the story knows, that strength is hard-won. In fact, the play’s first act is a sorrowful one, though Celie’s indefatigable kindness and hopeful spirit, as well as the script’s gentle humor, helps take the edge off. Viewers watch as Celie is abused, first by her stepfather (Moses T. Alexander Greene) and then by her husband, Mister (Akron Watson). Soon after, she is separated from her sister Nettie, played to sweet perfection by a gentle-faced Sharaè Moultrie. And, though Celie's sad plight continues, she still manages to hold onto her dreams and even find a little love along the way.
That love encompasses the indomitable Sofia, played with great humor and aplomb by Frenchie Davis; Celie’s stepson Harpo, charmingly portrayed by Matt Manuel; and the sultry, sensual Shug Avery (Nicole Henry). As these characters move in and out of Celie’s life, she learns and grows through observation, through touch, and through her own relentless quest for self-love and identity.
Jackson handles this emotionally-charged role with ease, creating a perfect Celie that viewers root for, feel for, and cry for. From delivering Celie’s mournful prayers to making her character stand straight, strong, and proud, she never loses touch with the dreams and determination that drive and define this unforgettable character. Indeed, her second act performance of “I’m Here” brought the audience to their feet at Saturday’s opening night performance, and rightfully so. Jackson knows how to pack power and genuine feeling into every word and has a voice that rings loud, clear, and true.
Speaking of that second act, it offers up a total shift in mood and tone. While the first half is somber, the second positively bursts with joy, color, and a pervasive sense of motion, life, and energy. This is largely due to Betts’ pristine staging. In his hands, these characters don’t just move around the stage—they own and dominate it. This same masterful sense of movement is also evident in his colorful, innovative choreography. So many musical numbers stand out in new ways thanks to his smooth choreo. Crowd favorites include Shug Avery’s “chair dance” and the fun, flashy moves that make up the “Miss Celie’s Pants” number. And, when viewers aren’t dazzled by dance, CJ Barnwell’s tender, effective lighting touches add visual appeal, especially when they highlight Celie’s face in “Too Beautiful for Words,” delivered by an angel-voiced Nicole Henry. There's also gorgeous live music throughout, adding emotion in all the right places.
As the story reaches its promising, emotional ending, viewers will feel transformed by the beauty of the story, the production, and their surroundings. The A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater is small and cozy enough to provide an intimate, immersive experience. It's also heartwarming to look around and see the diverse crowd in attendance . . . and the fact that everyone, regardless of age, color, gender, or anything else, is impacted by this production. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of heart, spirit, and joy has gone into this show, making it an infectious, unforgettable night of theater that will live in viewers’ hearts and heads long after the curtains close.
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