‘The Color Purple’ at the Paper Mill Playhouse: Timeless Story Packs a Wallop

The Color Purple, Paper Mill Playhouse (photo Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Great stories get in your face.

As a play, a great story reaches through the proscenium, grabs you by the collar and yells, “WAKE UP!” Sitting in the audience eating the bag of M&Ms you stashed in your purse, you are suddenly knocked out of complacency. The story comes off the stage, and sends you flying into the row behind you.

That is exactly what happened on Sunday night at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey at a re-staging of the 2016 Tony Award-winning production of The Color Purple.

This story packs a wallop because it is timeless. And this fact alone is amazing given how many versions there have been; The Color Purple, set in 1909, first appeared as a book in 1983. It was then adapted into a film in 1985, which was made into a Broadway musical in 2005, which was subsequently revived in 2016.

The sheer strength of Alice Walker’s story goes beyond these various iterations – some of which were more successful than others – because it is an epic at heart; The Color Purple is centered around Celie and the heroic journey she takes in finding her own voice. The scope of her life, from its brutal beginnings to its quiet triumphs, transcends the many eras and interpretations that have transpired since Alice Walker first brought Celie to life.

Based on members of Walker’s own family, we are introduced to Celie (Adrianna Hicks) as a pregnant, 14 year-old girl, who dreams of having a garden “where birds come to sing.” She gives birth (to her second child, fathered by her father), only to have her baby given away. And then, so is she. Sent to live with a man known only as Mister (Gavin Gregory), she is separated from her beloved sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara), and forced to care for another family, abused and miserable. Her relationships with women like Sophia (Carrie Compere) and Shug (Carla R. Stewart), are her salvation. They prove to her that a woman has more than just power – she has super powers. Through them, she learns to find her hidden strength: she can speak for herself. And in fact, she can sing (like a bird). And blammo. Celie goes from being invisible, to proclaiming, “I am here.”

The Color Purple gets in your face because it’s relevant. At times during the performance, it feels like Alice Walker actually published her Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel last Friday.

Right from the start, when we hear Celie and Nettie singing to each other as children, their words are eerily familiar:

Papa don’t like no screaming round here,

No lip from the women when they chug that beer

Celie’s story of abuse is the anthem we hear all too often. Her cries for help are unnoticed by everyone, except the audience, who, at the Paper Mill that night, had a hard time not linking current events to her powerless position.

When Sophia comes to Celia’s rescue, we all feel saved. Carrie Compere – who also played Sophia on Broadway and on the National Tour – delivers an electrifying rendition of Hell No!, which gives Celie the two most important words she needs. But when the entire chorus of women stood center stage, fists in the air, united for a split second before the blackout, there was no air in the theater. Turns out, the audience needed those two words too.

John Doyle (Director, Scenic Designer) makes sure that The Color Purple gets in your face — and stays there — by eliminating anything on stage that would detract from the characters, their stories, and their relationships. The design is spare, the tones are muted. What exists on stage is only there to further the narrative. Everything that happens has exponential resonance because it is created by the actors who bring those moments to life, in real time.

The Color Purple, Paper Mill Playhouse (Photo Jerry Dalia)

As an ensemble, the cast functions admirably. Notable are the Church Ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, Brit West). This Greek chorus/trio of women represent the conscience of the play (it is an epic, after all). They provide the story with the humor and amplitude it needs to avoid devolving into pathos.

Adrianna Hicks creates a compelling Celie who begins the play almost entirely in profile. She manages to avoid direct contact with the audience, diverting the early scenes to other characters out of shame and fear. Her vocal performance reflects this beautifully; it starts out girlish and relatively unadorned. As Celie develops and gains confidence, her voice gains power, and, by the end of the night, it knocks you back a row.

If you are expecting a night of sequins at the Paper Mill, you will instead discover something much more powerful: a timeless, human story. Unadorned. Costumed modestly, and unchoreographed. And despite what it lacks, it will deliver. Hold on to your M&Ms.

The Color Purple opens the 80th season at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Based on the novel written by Alice Walker, and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Ailee Willis, and Stephen Bray. It runs through October 21st.

Marcy Thompson is a writer, producer, and a Honcho at Studio B – a Maplewood, NJ-based arts non-profit.