It took more than 20 years for Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” to make it to the stage and almost another decade before it was available to community theaters around the country.
South Bend Civic Theatre is the first group in northern Indiana to tackle the demanding property which requires a 99 percent African American cast — the only Caucasian role being that of a jail guard who is less than friendly to his prisoners.
So, in spite of the fact that the acoustical problems still are very apparent throughout, and not alleviated by the awkward staging, the obviously enthusiastic cast rises to the challenge and comes out a real winner in the production which opened Friday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.
The challenge of turning Walker’s novel (and Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film) into a coherent musical narrative is not totally successful, primarily because it touches so many aspects in the life of Celie (the amazing Makeda Grier) that none gets more than cursory attention.
In the end, that is secondary to the sensitive performances delivered by Grier and her fellow performers, many of whom have not been on stage before.
There are, of course, veteran singer/actors in the large cast. Primary among these are Larisa LeSure who portrays Sofia (the role that was Oprah Winfrey’s film debut), the friend who first shows Celie that a woman can say “Hell, No”; Delshawn Taylor is Harpo, Sofia’s husband who is on the receiving end of her refusal; Jasmine Dennie is Shug Avery, sultry singer who appeals to both sexes; Nettie (Zoe Morgan), Celie’s sister, who escapes her sister’s fate in Africa; David Smith is Pa, their cruel and abusive parent; Ben Little plays Albert Johnson aka Mister, who marries Celie to have a live-in slave; and Laverne McMutuary, Michele Love-Moore and Sheila LeSure are three ladies of the town who serve as narrator/gossips.
Grier, however, is at the core of the action, dramatically and musically. She has a powerful soprano that can rage against her fate and soar in amazement upon discovering “I am beautiful” and she goes from cowering slavey who sadly accepts the abuse of both father and husband to independent woman who stands proudly alone.
This production owes special thanks to the men and women of its chorus who take a variety of roles from southerners to African natives and add a great deal of weight to all the musical numbers.
Jaycee Rohlick’s scenic design underscores the poverty of Celie’s life and allows the color and strength of Africa to take center stage when needed. Costume designer Lois Veen spices the necessary drab of the town with some brightly colored native outfits and especially brilliant ensembles for the three gossips. Check those hats!
The digital music track is well handled and neither deserts nor overpowers the singers who are right with it at all times!
There are only five more performances of this unique production. It is one that definitely should not be missed,
“THE COLOR PURPLE” plays at 7:40 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium at South Bend Civic Theatre,403 N.Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.