In Play Reviews

The Color Purple opens with two little girls–Celie (Felicia Bosworth) and her younger sister Nettie (Danea C. Osseni)–giggling and playing a game. Flash to 14-year-old Celie holding a baby, her second. Pa (C. Mingo Long) takes the baby from her. We’re certain he’s going to kill it.

Traditionally, Portland Center Stage begins each season with a musical. With its harrowing story line, The Color Purple  (book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) doesn’t strike one as traditional musical material.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd as the villainous Mister in The Color Purple. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

The hopelessness of Celie’s life is paramount through most of the first act. Not long after Pa, the father of her babies, takes the second one away, Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) comes calling. He needs a wife to raise his rotten kids and work the farm. He wants to marry Nettie, “the pretty one”, but Pa won’t have it. Instead, he gives Celie to Mister, sealing her fate to a lifetime of hard work, rapes, and beatings.

There is plenty of gloom and doom at the play’s beginning, and plenty of commentary to go with it as a Greek chorus of Church Ladies (Nia Marche, Ithica Tell, and Lauren Du Pree) and the Preacher (Gregory Brumfield) weigh in.

Maiesha McQueen (Sofia) and Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd (Harpo) shake it up in Harpo’s club in The Color Purple. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

Mister’s son Harpo (Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd) livens things up when he marries Sofia (Maiesha McQueen). Sofia is not one to be bossed around. And then there’s the sultry club singer Shug Avery (Lana Gordon)–Mister’s mistress when she’s in the area. Other cast members include Shalanda Sims, Maritza Bostic, Martavius Parrish, Juson Williams and Neil Totton

Shug recognizes Celie’s inner llight and befriends her. As the story moves through a maze of brutality, high drama, and confused alliances, Shug’s wisdom and energy begin to open us to the Big Picture. “God is in all of us,” she tells the broken Celie. Shug’s spirit is free, and she is able to share that freedom with everyone around her. Her message challenges Celie’s view of herself and seeps into the other characters, making the play an epic statement about healing and redemption.

Lana Gordon (Shug) and Felicia Boswell (Celie) in The Color Purple. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

The Color Purple is a huge story acted out on a grand scale. The massive barn wood set (Tony Cisek) converts into a wall of plantation shutters, allowing characters to look in, and to look out to the bigger things life offers. Based on Alice Walker‘s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, this is not only a story of other times, but of our times, when women, particularly women of color, still must fight for equality and respect.

Timothy Douglas directs an extraordinary cast, each blessed with great talent and each giving 150 percent. Darius Smith is music director and conductor. This show is the season opener you don’t want to miss! It continues its run at Portland Center Stage at the Armory through October 28.

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