I first came across ‘The Color Purple’, the book by Alice Walker, when I was doing my A Level Coursework. From the first page, I was drawn into the both heartbreaking and heartwarming story of Celie, through her letters to both God and her sister. The book is notably written the way Celie, a uneducated, oppressed and beaten young black girl in early 20th Century America, would write, resulting in missed words and stuttering vocabulary. When I was reading, this unusual style of narration brought me right into Celie’s head, her stunted voice fast becoming a powerful expression of her abuse.
The 2005 Broadway adaptation of the book welcomed great success, with 10 Tony noms, but I’d never heard of it before the revival in 2015. It’s a bit like seeing one of your favourite books transformed into a film- there’s always a degree of anxiety about whether or not it can possibly live up to the , already perfect, vision you’ve had in your head. With this musical, I was just unsure as to how music would fit in while still maintaining the complex, unbelievably raw characters. Perhaps the safe distance most of us have from what these characters are going through means that a lack of sincerity or exaggeration in the music and lyrics could easily alienate a privileged audience. Somehow, the writers found the balance- with simple lyrics that both reflect the simplicity of the characters lives and portray the unimaginable pain they feel. The structure of the songs successfully reflects the style of the novel, and similarly pulls you right into the centre of Celie’s universe.
The music is not the sort of music I expected to enjoy, a lot of it has a country feel to it, on account of the show taking place in the American deep South, and the African parts gave a slightly ‘Once on This Island’ vibe. However, the gospel place from which it comes from is fit to burst of pure heart. Cynthia Erivo singing “I’m Here”, a song about finally finding your identity within yourself rather than basing your self worth on what other people might think of you, could conjure goosebumps from a statue. From the opening numbers when Erivo’s Celie is resigned and obligingly small, “Papa don’t like no screaming round here”, to when she belts liquid strength with the final “I am here”- the journey is tumultuous but deeply heartening.
If you’ve ever seen Orange Is The New Black, a show more similar to this musical than you might first expect, then you’ve fallen in love with Danielle Brooks as the larger-than-life ‘Taystee’. In The Color Purple, Brooks transfers this Taystee-esque ability to bring joy into her steely, resilient portrayal of Sofia. Her song “Hell No!”, the hair-raisingly angry and self-assured number she sings when her, usually loving, husband tries to beat her, is an incredible show of female defiance even in a time when it was not just unexpected, but unwanted. Her confidence juxtaposes Celie’s initial vulnerability to an extreme that makes her moments of weakness all the more heartbreaking- Sofia is beaten almost to death when she stands up to a white woman wanting to hire her as a maid, a cold awakening to the realities of the racist context within which the play is set.
Writing this piece I do feel at a distinct disadvantage, having not actually been to see the show on Broadway (and will unfortunately not get the chance to before it closes in January) but the music has, as all good music should, completely inspired me.