Signature Theatre’s stage is set like a house with no windows. Created for the play “The Color Purple,” the wooden beams serve as a metaphor: closed when Celie (played by Nova Y. Payton) feels most isolated, and open when she has any glimpse into a life beyond her own.
Based on the beloved novel of the same name written by Alice Walker, “The Color Purple” has withstood both attempted and successful book bans. The story can be difficult to watch or read due to the abuse Celie and other characters endure, but Signature’s production helps show why seeing — consciously not looking away — can inspire understanding and action.
Throughout the play, directed by Timothy Douglas, Celie is almost always on stage, whether or not she has any lines. Off to the side, she folds clothes, hunches in fear or listens intently, trying to figure out her place in a world that’s told her what she is. Payton’s portrayal makes audience feel how her character feels; this everlasting shadow cast by abuse.
“The Color Purple” spotlights female empowerment and the bond of sisterhood in a Southern Black community. Frenchie Davis shines as Sofia — a commanding presence perfect for the character. Kaiyla Gross’s depiction of Nettie was so charming, it was exciting every time she took the stage. And as for Danielle J. Summons who played Shug Avery, there’s a reason she was cast for that specific role: When she was onstage, all eyes were on her.
But when these actresses share scenes, the chemistry is palpable. Each character builds off the other, and when singing, their voices harmonize in a way that confirms one of the play’s themes: They’re stronger together.
“The Color Purple” has received criticism in the past for its portrayal of Black men — in fact, most featured in the play are abusive and angry, feeding into unhelpful stereotypes. Torrey Linder, who plays Mister, shows softer sides to his character, culminating in a song that tells the audience of the abuse he suffered from his father, how he knows he continued the cycle and how he promises to break the cycle going forward. While it doesn’t excuse any of the trauma he caused Celie, and this change ultimately feels quite fast-paced, this interpretation allows for nuance to a stereotype, another moment where light sneaks through a closed-in house.
Still, it’s the women letting the light in. They endure and sing and climb and love, pulling themselves and each other out of the house. The jazzy music builds throughout the play, ending with Payton’s powerhouse vocals that show Celie coming out, owning her life.
The set design follows. A scraggly tree that blends in with the old house suddenly blooms as Celie understands what she wants and what she deserves. Payton’s body language morphs: her Celie is no longer in the corner, no longer hunching. Purple blossoms pop as she sings. She stands tall and proud, hitting every single note, the cast supporting her in the background. In Douglas’s production, every voice counts, but the women show us where the color purple comes from.
“The Color Purple” continues through October 9. You can purchase tickets here.
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