Disclaimer: I was amongst the first audience to see the show. One can assume that the director incorporated moments for audience reaction after studying our reaction. All criticisms concerning flow might’ve been solved in all further performances. This review therefore is soley based on the performance I saw.
The Color Purple is an American Epistolary novel from the 1980’s. The book formed the base for a Whoopi Goldberg-Starring Steven Spielberg-movie. Oprah Winfrey, who also starred in said movie, produced the 2005 Broadway adaptation of the novel. In 2015 a revival starring Cynthia Erivo opened on Broadway after it had a limited run in London, it is this revival that heavily influenced OpusOne’s staging of the same show.
The Color Purple is a coming-of-age story that combines such themes as oppression based on sex,
discrimination, abuse and rape. The novel is mostly set in rural America after the start of the 21st
century. Because of its themes and setting this novel has been seen as an inspiration for the Afro-American community.
The Color Purple is not a happy tale as the themes I mentioned earlier might’ve suggested already. Celie the main character, played adequately in this production by Naomi van der Linden, is a girl who by the age of 14 has been raped by her father which resulted in at least two pregnancies. After she has given birth to her second child she is married off to Mister, a gruff landowner with the temper of a slave-owner (complete with whip!). Mister is played by Edwin Jonker in this production who fruitlessly tries to bring some dimension to the character.
Celie agrees to marry Mister because she knows she is saving her younger, more ambitious sister Nettie, adorably played by Carmen van Muller, from that fate. She also thinks she can survive the marriage because abuse is a thing she has lived through her whole life.
The first act of the show is mostly about the horrid life Celie lives at Mister’s farm, starting with Nettie being exiled from the farm. Celie isn’t allowed to ever see Nettie again.
There are however two clear bright-spots in this dark tale. Their names are Sofia and Shug Avery, who are played with wonderful timing and commitment by Jeannine la Rose and Ana Milva Gomes respectively.
Sofia is a woman who marries and proceeds to walk all over one of Mister’s sons called Harpo, played by Carlos de Vries. Harpo complains that Sofia isn’t as obedient as Celie is so Celie suggests he hit Sofia. This is because abuse always worked on Celie, that’s how life treated her. Sofia learns about this and gets angry with Celie explaining very clearly that she herself decides how life treats her.
Shug Avery is a woman who is empowering to Celie in a different way. The townspeople are quick to call her a whore since she is a touring singer who has shared the bed with many men including Mister. When Celie helps her get dressed she can’t help but take a glance at her naked body and for the first time in her life she falls deeply in love. However Shug will explain with her actions that she isn’t one to be captured by love.
The second act of the show opens with a montage of letters that Celie has received from her sister Nettie who has built up a life of her own. Celie begins to rediscover her self-confidence and when she is helping Sofia to get back on her feet after a beating. She is even confident enough to leave Mister to go to Memphis with Shug Avery. The rest of the second act is a colourful display of Celie’s life after the abuse.
Because the first act displays so much sadness it can feel very slow and tedious but when that second act begins you’re not going to know what hit you.
OpusOne is trying to pay homage to the Broadway revival in the promotion material as well as in the staging. And however amicable this goal may be, without a Broadway budget you won’t be able to reach this result. You have to make some changes.
The set is made from auction crates. All the walls and even the props are made from these auction crates, when they build up the shop or the juke-joint they are all made from those crates. These auction crates are even used as the benches in the church. By doubling down on these auction crates the staging creates two effects: it draws attention to the moments in the show when they do use real props and furniture. These scenes get an extra layer of meaning, an example is the bathtub. About halfway through the first act Shug Avery sits naked in a bathtub when Celie meets her, this is an important moment and using a real bathtub instead of the crates puts emphasis on the scene.
The other effect that the minimal staging creates is the focus on acting. By using a minimalistic set and the fact that the ensemble almost never changes costume the focus is put on acting. The only problem I have with this is that the acting isn’t consistent, they don’t always play it straight. When there’s a comedic scene this might work but this story is so serious it is best brought seriously. That’s where the tonal problems set in. the first act has to juggle these heavy themes and happenings with some humour to keep the show from being depressing. Sometimes this works like with Sofia and Shug, but too often the comedic scenes cut right through the emotion felt mere seconds before. They don’t allow the emotion of certain scenes to linger and opt to go straight into a comedic bit.
The opening number after the intermission also calls on a stark contrast with the rest of the show, however with a confusing effect. Since this is a montage of the letters Nettie sent Celie, the actors wear costumes that are either made out of a textile that is printed with the picture of a letter or they carry giant cotton representations of these envelopes. Since the staging as well as the costumes have been very bland and minimalistic up until now this creates a huge contrast. However, unlike the effect the switch to ‘real’ furniture had, this change carries no meaning whatsoever. The print never comes back in the show so they could’ve just as easily used African robes. This is just a very big sign to the audience: “this montage is a representation of Nettie’s Letters!!!!”, it isn’t subtle at all and frankly annoyed the heck out of me in the theatre. The costumes are literally laughable as the audience burst into laughter as soon as the actors walked onto the scene, I could not take them seriously.
When Celie decides to flee from Mister the staging as well as the costuming takes a turn for the better as a lot more props are used and the costumes carry a lot more colour. However, the real surprise of the staging only comes in the last half of the second act and it will drop your jaw to the floor. It almost makes you forgive the fact that the staging has been this bland up until this point.
I really hope that before this goes on tour next fall they retool this show a little. Smooth out the acting, spruce up the sets and differentiate between costumes. If you have the time and money to see it at the NDSM wharf you should, it’s an experience to be inside of this gigantic building with in a tiny corner a theatre that’s been cornered off by shipping-containers.
If you decide to see it at the Wharf I strongly advise you to choose a seat from the 5th row or higher. The first 4 rows are placed virtually beneath the stage and after a while your neck might hurt a little.
But if you are hesitating to see it at the wharf then I’d say you can better wait until it gets to a theatre near you. The current venue gives no extra meaning or depth to the show so I’d say there is no real reason to spend extra money to travel there.
All in all I think The Color Purple from OpusOne has succeeded in what they set out to do. Is it the perfect musical? No, but it’s close. The sets might be minimal but that’s also because this show doesn’t need much to tell a lot. I can tell you, this is a show that you can’t miss. Because you like musical theatre but also because of its cultural significance.