By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I believe I have inside of me/ Everything that I need to lead a bountiful life,” sings a confident woman in the last moments of the heart-grabbing musical currently on the Citadel mainstage.
The heroine of The Color Purple, has learned, the hardest way, what it means to love and be loved.
As the ensemble sings at the outset, in a stirring anthem, “the good lord works in mysterious ways.” So does theatre, when you come right down to it. It takes a great and charismatic performance to bring to life, in a fulsome, dimensional way, a transformation as remarkable as Celie’s — the four-decade journey of a poor black abused girl who survives (no, triumphs over) a horrendous battering by racism, rape, incest, violence in the rural South in the early 20th century.
And that performance is what happens in Kimberley Rampersad’s vivid, compulsive production of The Color Purple, the 2005 musical (re-fashioned a decade later) wrested by playwright Marsha Norman from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, and the 1985 Spielberg movie that followed.
Calgary’s Tara Jackson, in her star performance, expertly charts the incremental self-discovery of Celie as a kind of emergence from survival mode, in all its flinching reflexive stoicism, “into creation,” as the character puts it. The sense of wonder, in every stage from merest glimmer, is available in Jackson’s under-the-radar evolution. And by the time she throws aside the cloak of invisibility and tears into the very fabric of her oppression, first with righteous anger and then with something you’d have to call joy — climactically in I’m Here — you’re ready to cheer. And you feel OK about cheering; it’s been earned.
The story is Celie’s. At 14, repeatedly raped by the man she believes to be her father, she’s had two babies, both snatched away by her tormenter. And, with a cow thrown in to seal the deal, he sells her into wifely servitude to a terrifying brute she knows as Mister (the commanding Ryan Allen). He beats her, he rapes her, and he whips her with words. “You’re poor, you’re black, you’re ugly … and you’re a woman.”
Her only solace in this veil of tears is her beloved sister Nettie (Allison Edwards-Crewe), who swears to love her forever. When Mister chases Nettie away, and her letters fail to arrive, life is nearly unbearable. The good news? “This life will soon be over” and heaven lasts forever. God, as Celie will point out reasonably, hasn’t exactly distinguished himself in her case.
The sisterhood, in the larger sense, is what saves her tiny flicker of self-hood from utter extinction and opens her eyes to a world where liberation can happen. Much to Celie’s amazement Sofia (Janelle Cooper, comical and larger-than-life earthy), the formidable, deep-voiced wife of Mister’s wheedly son Harpo (the amusing Andrew Broderick), simply refuses to be man-handled: “hell NO!”
The arrival of Mister’s mistress Shug Avery (Karen Burthright), a flamboyant honky-tonk diva, marks Celie’s discovery of sexual love and animation in a life endured hitherto without either. Burthright uses her lustrous voice in a couple of knock-out numbers, like Push Da Button, shimmering with sexy double-entendres. The love duet between Celie and Shug, What About Love?, is the musical’s most affecting.
The stagecraft by Rampersad, the first black woman to direct a professional production of The Color Purple on stage or screen, is a beautiful, moving collage of still-life tableaux, a witty ebb and flow of stillness and choreographed movement that never seems forced on the characters. There’s a kind of folk pageantry about the way the scenes unspool; they come to the stage, and us, out of period paintings. Somehow the idea of Africa (where Nettie has ended up, with a missionary family) has more impact than a physical production number, but the colours leap out at us in Rampersad’s artful staging.
Anyhow, the painterly effect is enhanced by Hugh Conacher’s stunning lighting. It suffuses Brian Perchaluk’s set — a hint of improvised interior, a backdrop of light-tipped cotton fields, two impressively barren trees with supplicating branches — with the golden glow of passing dawns and dusks. The sky is a fossilized in-relief pattern of the earth; the effect is arresting.
Which brings us to the “Church Ladies,” a comical trio of moral arbiters who follow and annotate the action (Masini McDermott, Maiko Munroe, Sarah Nairne) in song and dance. They are the amusing perspective on the status quo. And in Ming Wong’s costumes, which nail the time, they are consistently fun to watch.
As for listening, the 16-member cast has real vocal heft and dexterity in delivering with ease a score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray that ranges from gospel to jazz, patter song to big juicy ballads, as accompanied by Floydd Ricketts’ accomplished eight-piece band. Peter McBoyle’s sound design is impeccable.
And a story of empowerment comes to life, as shadows flicker across Jackson’s features, now open to the world, and melt away. Her hard-won smile will make your eyes water.
The Color Purple
Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Created by: Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, from the Alice Walker novel
Directed by: Kimberley Rampersad
Starring: Tara Jackson, Karen Burthwright, Janelle Cooper, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Ryan Allen, Andrew Broderick
Running: through Oct. 13
Tickets: 780-425-182o, citadeltheatre.com