I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker when I was about 12, it having been recommended to me as a sort of alternative classic. As such a young white girl, it was one of the first things that made me truly aware of my privilege and it has stuck with me ever since. So, when it was advertised that it was playing in Birmingham I almost immediately booked a pair of tickets – and I am so, so happy I did.
T’Shan Williams as the protagonist, Celie, is stunning; she carries the innocence and slight naivety that Celie has during her early life before transforming into the empowered woman we see after she has met Shug Avery (Joanna Francis) and Sofia (Karen Mavundukure). Both of these women were also phenomenal – they had stage presence second to none and I think the audience hung on to their every word. Obviously, both of these women are key to the story in teaching Celie what is right and wrong, and the actresses carried off their characters so well. I also adored Danielle Fiamanya as Nettie, and it may be my only gripe with the show that she is not on stage for half as much as I wanted her to be! Her chemistry with T’Shan Williams was incredible and they seemed to fit so easily as sisters throughout, and their voices came together absolutely beautifully.
Every character in this show is important to Celie’s journey in some way, and every character was pulled off with such energy, and you could tell that this show meant so much to every actor and actress in it. We went on closing night, and the cast’s group hug at the end of the bows had me almost in tears. I loved all their individual voices but it was so joyous to listen to groups of the cast sing, and the scenes and music blended so seamlessly from the heart-breaking scenes to the high-spirited. I’d be hard-pushed to say I have any favourites, but I loved “Hell No!” (Sofia) and “Big Dog” (Mister, Field Hands and Celie). In the second half, I was almost stunned by Mister’s solo “Mister Song”, by Ako Mitchell, because he hadn’t sung with such emotion and musicality in the first half.
One of the things I love most about this story is the contrasting lives of Sofia and Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden) to those of Celie and Mister, because they show the breaking of the cycle and how children will not necessarily become like their parents. I think it’s really important that they cut the narrative, and Harpo throughout was so lovely to watch flourish. And finally, there has to be a shout-out given to the Church Ladies (Danielle Kassarate, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah and Landi Oshinowo) who provided the light-hearted transitions throughout and seemed to appear at slightly hilariously inappropriate moments.
I adored the set for this show, in which at the beginning all that can be seen is two cut out triangles and a rectangle; the sets appear as and when around the actors with some props being organically taken on and off set by those in the scene. The set designer (Alex Loade) says in the programme that because Celie has little control over her life, “it makes sense… [that] Celie remains fixed and the locations arrive around her”. I enjoyed how basic each set was, only adding what was needed to the story, never distracting. The only static prop is the letterbox, which as a key part to the story, and Mister’s control of Celie, is entirely appropriate.
The costumes had a similar effect, for me – in the opening song, it was noticable for me that there was very little colour except for the outfits of Nettie and Celie, the latter of which was slightly muted as if showing the fact that she was seen as somewhat beneath Nettie, who shone in her bright yellow dress, her hair down in braids. This continues across the show, with the exception of the gorgeous bright blue outfits in the letters scene where Celie is imagining where Nettie is – the stark contrast to the muted scenes of Celie’s life clearly gives the impression of desperation and imagination and wishing, and it is stunning.
I can’t recommend this show more, and it easily gets 5/5 from me (and my mum, who I always drag to the theatre!) – I truly hope it gets a tour or transfer to the West End as it will be such a shame if more people don’t get to see it. I think it’s such a brilliant show in that it has those light-hearted moments and amazing choreography, but that never takes away from the serious tale at hand.