For the producers of Denton Community Theatre’s staging of The Color Purple: The Musical About Love, the show poses a big challenge in almost every respect.
The musical director describes the jazz, blues and gospel score as “intricate” and “difficult.” Award-winning director Theresa Buntain called the scope of the show “huge.” The performers said the musical demands an honesty that is “exhausting.”
The local performance of the Broadway musical has one more challenge in front of it, too. It’s the regional premiere of the musical, which is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel by Alice Walker. Steven Spielberg released the film adaptation in 1985, and it earned 11 Academy Award nominations. To date, the American Library Association includes the novel in its list of the 100 most challenged books.
“Make no mistake, you guys,” Buntain told her cast on Tuesday night. “This musical is very, very difficult. And you’ve mastered it. Seriously, this music is really, really difficult. So leave here knowing that you’ve done something.
“Something most community theaters are not capable of,” said Richard Buntain, a musician and Buntain’s husband, who is also a volunteer working on the show.
Buntain said she had to read the novel twice. She was an English teacher when she opened the book in 1984, and she was still a little confounded.
“I thought, ‘I can’t read this woman’s speech,’” she said.
The Color Purple is triumphant, but it still ruffles feathers 31 years after its publication because the protagonist, Celie, recalls her life in Georgia without censoring its horror. That horror reads like a list of crimes: neglect, beatings, rape at the hands of her father and, eventually, a marriage defined by spite, humiliation and more physical abuse.
The novel is made up of letters between Celie and her sister Nettie after the two are cruelly and suddenly separated by Celie’s marriage to the man she calls “Mister.” Celie documents her suffering in letters to God and to Nettie. Celie also writes about her own spiritual reawakening upon meeting singer Shug Avery, Mister’s longtime lover. Nettie’s letters open Celie’s eyes to Africa, and the blooming of Celie’s children, Adam and Olivia, who are living with missionaries on the continent.
Genine Ware, who plays the role of Celie, said she auditioned simply because of her love of the story.
“I remember the book. I remember the movie,” Ware said. “It’s a powerful story, and the music takes you on a very emotional journey. I just wanted to be part of that story. I was interested in [playing] Celie or Shug.”
The musical demands that the chief actresses strike a strong bond. Much of the musical is about the transformation of women. Celie blossoms from abused teen and wife to a businesswoman and designer. Nettie moves from being a smart young girl to being an independent educator on a mission field. Another character, Sofia, grows into a trailblazer, making a space for herself in a community full of men weaned on violence and humiliation dealt by a segregated South.
“Celie, when she meets Sofia, is so impressed,” Ware said. “Celie was always the person who believed you suffer in silence. Here is a woman who speaks up, speaks out. She’s never known that.”
Jo’Von Wright, a Texas Woman’s University student playing the same role that proved Oprah Winfrey is as formidable an actress as she is a businesswoman, said Sofia hides a lot of love inside her sass.
“I feel like Sofia is more protective of Celie than a lot of people think,” Wright said. “She’s the one who tells Celie, ‘You don’t have to take this.’ She’s the first person who really tells Celie that she can stand up for herself. It’s been a real maturing role for me.”
Wright recently performed in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at TWU, but said the role of Sofia asked even more from her.
“It took a lot for me to change the way I talk, the way I walk. I have to drop my voice as Sofia,” she said. “I have to walk differently.”
In the film adaption, Winfrey’s Sofia moved like a tractor — with heft and strength. For Denton Community Theatre’s staging, Wright affects a posture of grace and authority. She’s a lot less leaden than Winfrey, physically, in the role. But she doesn’t try to shrink into nothing, something Ware does as Celie.
As Mister Johnson, Jeremy Davis is quick to rage and slow — tectonically slow — to understand.
Davis said the cast members had to get comfortable with their characters and the story before they could perform a show in which men use violence as a way of communicating, and as a way to withhold communication.
“Everyone is on point,” Davis said. “This show has to be like a comfortable old T-shirt when we walk through these doors. When we get here, we have to put it on and turn it up.”
Davis said the players’ job is to tell the story with unflinching honesty, even if it’s ugly or — in some cases — antagonistic to its audience.
“To step on that stage and tell that person’s story, we’re giving the facts. We’re telling the story of our ancestors, here,” he said. “People who watch will have to take it as they take it and do with it what they have to do. But this is the truth. These characters, they are from a time where, if you looked at somebody the wrong way, you could be lynched and you could get killed.
“It’s liberating to step on that stage and tell these stories. Fifty years ago, blacks couldn’t come into this theater. Now we’re here, telling this story. It’s liberating.”
The story happens largely within a black farm, with nearly no reference to Jim Crow. The plot of segregation comes up for a short but pivotal moment when Sofia talks back to a white woman of influence, and pays dearly. But the aggressor in The Color Purple is a mean, hardscrabble patriarchy that boxes black men into a tiny corner.
Musical director Arturo Ortega, a busy freelance symphony conductor, said he and his cast had to establish a common vocabulary as they worked through the music, which Ortega said is “incredibly demanding.” He conducts a 22-piece orchestra on the Campus Theatre stage.
Ortega is accustomed to choruses that accompany symphonies in performances of Shostakovich and Mahler.
“I figured out pretty quickly that, for the most part, I’m working with church singers,” Ortega said. “I had to do a lot of singing at the players to show them what I wanted and what the music needed from them. That was really effective.”
He said the cast picked up the music quickly, and was quick to understand what he needed when he “sang at” them as they moved through the blues, jazz and gospel-heavy score.
“This is a black cast in a black show singing black music,” he said. “There’s so much there that’s innate that, had this been a ‘color-blind’ cast, we probably wouldn’t be able to do.”
When the regional premiere opens in Denton on Friday, actress Amber Renae said her job will be to “let go to go there.”
As Nettie, Renae has to perform in some of the musical’s most wrenching scenes.
“We were just talking about that,” Renae said when she and Ware were asked about how they prepared for the sisters’ separation scene. “The work we have done, we have had to go completely outside of ourselves in that scene. We come out of our bodies. Afterward, I’m breathing heavy and crying, even offstage.”
Ware said she feels spent after most rehearsals. But she said she’s not alone. She credits a dedicated and talented cast for arriving at Celie’s new life.
“Celie is a survivor,” she said. “In spite of all the hard days, Celie is still here. That’s the song: ‘I’m Here.’ A lot of people mistake Celie’s meekness for weakness. She’s not. You can’t survive what Celie survives and be weak.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
CAST OF ‘THE COLOR PURPLE’
Young Celie — Stacia Fuller-Hallman
Young Nettie — I’yanna Music
Church Soloist — Patricia Hill
Darlene — Victoria Bell
Doris — Chelsi Clark
Jarene — La’Netia D. Taylor
Pa — Kelvin Mack
Teenage Celie — Elizabeth Bing
Teenage Nettie — Nichole Darby
Celie — Genine Ware
Nettie — Amber Renae
Preacher — Patrick Johnson
Mister — Jeremy Davis
Young Harpo — Dave Whitley
Harpo — Malcolm Payne Jr.
Sofia — Jo’Von Wright
Henrietta — I’yanna Music
Squeak — Ciara Crayton
Darlene’s Husband — Anthony Chambers
Doris’ Husband — Corey Berry
Jarene’s Husband — Don Roberson
Shug Avery — KayDee Carr
Ol’ Mister — Jason Young
Bartender — John E. Williams
Buster — Jason Young
Olinka Chief — Patrick Johnson
Young Adam — Whitley
Young Olivia — Stacia Fuller-Hallman
Guard — Marcus Davis
Grady — Martin Clark
Daisy — Jazmon McTear
Glodene — Margriet Singletary
Odessa — Margriet Singletary
Young Man — Edwin Oghakpor
Adult Adam — John E. Williams
Adult Olivia — Nichole Darbey
Ensemble: Vanessa Feagins, Tyaiteiyhana Marcellous, Ben Morgan
THE COLOR PURPLE
What: Denton Community Theatre presents the musical adaptation of the novel by Alice Walker and the film directed by Steven Spielberg. Adapted by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15-17; and 2 p.m. Aug. 18
Where: Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $10 for students with valid ID and children. To purchase tickets, call 940-382-1915 or visit the website.
On the Web: www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com .