By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
What about tears when I’m happy? What about wings when I fall?
I want you to be/ A story for me/ That I can believe in forever.
— What About Love?, The Color Purple
There are ground-breaking firsts attached to the production that launches the Citadel mainstage season Thursday. For one thing, Kimberley Rampersad, one of the country’s hottest young directors, is (amazingly) the first black woman to helm any professional production, on stage or screen, of The Color Purple, the 2005 Broadway musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel.
For another, director Rampersad and several of her cast, including Tara Jackson, who stars as the struggling African-American heroine Celie, are fresh from another production of The Color Purple — the Canadian premiere at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in May and June.
For Rampersad, who was last here to choreograph Daryl Cloran’s Edmonton-Winnipeg-Vancouver co-production of Matilda, being the first black woman to direct a piece seminally tied to black culture, identity, and history, is “telling…. I recognize the importance of it, and my part in that. But it is an indictment,” she says over mid-rehearsal lunch with Jackson last week.
“How has it happened that everyone else has more agency over a narrative than the people the narrative is about? How has it happened they’re relegated to the periphery?”
Produced on Broadway by Oprah Winfrey and revived in a Tony-winning John Doyle production in 2015, The Color Purple is a black story from a woman’s perspective. It chronicles the transformative 40-year journey of a poor, black woman in rural Georgia up against it — racism, rape, incest, violence — who comes increasingly, then triumphantly, into her own in the first half of the last century. It’s an intricate narrative of self-discovery to bring to the stage. But novelist Walker wanted the musical to be written. “She was not satisfied with the movie,” says Rampersad, citing Walker’s official biographer Evelyn White. “She felt the same-sex relationship, and the violence, were given a soft lens….”
Jackson thinks “the Canadian premiere happened in Halifax for a reason” — to wit, its history and its large and vibrant African-Canadian population, many of them descendants of people who arrived from the South on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s an amazing black community there,” says Jackson, whom Citadel audiences have seen and heard in both Hadestown and Bittergirl: The Musical. “I can’t put it into words, how great it felt to represent the people of the place. It’s not often for me, being an Alberta girl (she’s from Calgary), that I look out into the audience and see … myself. Just as for them, they don’t often see themselves onstage. That will draw you to a show, I think.” She seeks out a word, “heartwarming,” and expands on the experience. “So fulfilling as an artist, as a human, as a black woman. It felt really special.”
And now, a Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production that brings Winnipegger Rampersad and Calgarian Jackson back to their home towns to tell — no, to possess — a story that is neither white nor male. “The novel is phenomenal,” says the former. “And the (Spielberg) movie is formidable… it resonates through our pop culture.” The musical will have a natural rapport with the “long-standing black communities in Alberta and Manitoba” whose history, unlike the stories of refugees and more recent immigrants, is only vaguely known. “It has the potential to be magic.”
She and Jackson are moved, she says, “to be able to practise our art in our home cities — and not have to reconcile who we are but to bring the fullness of our experience. And in mainstage places, not just peripheral places!”
The book is by the award-winning American playwright Marsha Norman (‘Night Mother). As for the (Grammy-winning) score, by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it fuses jazz, gospel, ragtime, and rhythm-and-blues. Jackson finds that “the scenes inform the songs and the songs inform the scenes…. You could listen to the sound track and get the full picture. Which I think is ideal in a musical. Sometimes you feel so good or the hurt is so deep you have to sing it!” The Color Purple isn’t one of those musicals where you’re jarred when characters burst into song. As Rampersad points out, “we find ourselves in places — church, two girls playing, a juke joint — where there is naturally music.”
Jackson was a singer/songwriter student at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music en route to a music industry career when she and musical theatre discovered each other. “They were doing Rent in my last semester, and I auditioned because I’ve always loved Rent, and why not?. She was cast. And in the month of rehearsal that preceded the sole performance “I got bitten by the theatre bug. Hey, I can sing. And dance. And act. Why am I not doing this? I didn’t have any formal acting training, but hey, I’ll learn!”
Rampersad had something of the same discovery of musical theatre, in all its multiple facets Her career started in dance, then choreography, then acting. And now, directing. In the last six months, she’s directed not one but two different productions of The Color Purple on opposite sides of the country. And in between, last summer (hardly a light diversion), there was the Shaw Festival production of Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced, monumental, six-hour Man and Superman, including the Don Juan in Hell dream scene.
It runs at the festival through Oct. 5, And in its full form it’s an event (as The New York Times rightly noted in seeking out an interview with Rampersad). “Epic, and not using the word as hyperbole,” she laughs. “It was … clarifying, a great artistic experience and I’m the better for it. … I loved being in the muck of it.”
The festival’s “intern artistic director” muses that “sometimes you feel isolated as a director, since there’s only one of you. But then you’re never alone in any artistic practice; you’re surrounded by great theatre-makers…. I don’t need to have the have the best ideas; I just need to have some of them. I need to be be able to identify them.”
The significance, the weight, of The Color Purple for black artists can hardly be over-estimated. “It’s not often that I get to be in the same space as my peers, my fellow black actors,” says Jackson. “We are often spread apart in shows, one here one there. It’s not often we get to do a story about us.” Those are the shows that are, for the most part, not written yet, and stories that aren’t owned yet. It’s only the second time (after Soul Sistas at the Mayfield, in which she played Aretha Franklin) that Jackson has been onstage with an all-black cast.
“Walking into a room and seeing yourself, and hearing yourself, is … very different,” she beams. “I welcome it, and I want more of it! There’s a comfort, a familiarity, a kinship that’s built it. I fear the day when I don’t get to do this any more,” she says of The Color Purple.
Rampersad nods. She calls the experience of rehearsing a black story with a black cast “a shorthand of how we walk through this world — the things we’re presented with, the things we walk through, the things we take the long way around. It’s a different way, a different awareness, sensitivity, sensibility, acknowledgment of what it is to walk through the world. The things we own and the things that are put upon us.”
Most Canadians in the industry, working in most rehearsal halls and on most stages, “don’t have the experience of feeling like The Other … ” says Rampersad. She notes that things are changing for black artists. “But slowly.”
“It’s a rare opportunity for us to put all that extra-ness into the work itself! It feels so different — a big inhale, yes, but it can also take the legs out from under you,” Rampersad muses. “That’s what almost all theatre is about, people who are out, trying to find their group, find their family.”
The rehearsals for this epic “labour of love” as Jackson calls it, are exhausting. Says Rampersad, “the show wears the characters down the way time does. It’s so demanding, so, yes, relentless on both characters and actors. It’s like a wheel that’s turning. And it picks up mud, and it’s going downhill so it’s picking up momentum getting dirtier, grittier, more meaningful until we hit the bottom. And no one gets to shake it off. The weight of the show literally works on them. Which is what life does….”
“You have to pre-set your dinner and pyjamas for when you go home. Because you have just enough energy to shower, send an email to a loved one. Zero extraneous energy. And you’re down for the count.”
The Color Purple
Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Written by: Marsha Norman; music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
Directed by: Kimberley Rampersad
Starring: Tara Jackson, Karen Burthwright, Janelle Cooper, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Ryan Allen, Andrew Broderick
Running: Thursday through Oct. 13
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com