How does one in good conscience turn a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the difficult early 20th century lives of black women in particular and black people in general into a musical about love? Oprah Winfrey’s production of The Color Purple, which is currently at the Ahmanson Theatre, attempts to do just that. The fact that Oprah is able to sleep at night, basking in the glory of the musical’s success while ignoring its larger implications, is disturbing, but not surprising.
Thankfully, the musical remains loyal to the book’s basic plot. The story revolves around the love shared by two sisters, Celie and Nettie, who are separated during their teen years and spend much of their adult lives not knowing whether the other is alive or dead. Celie, the oldest, is essentially given away to an older man, Mister, who views her as nothing more than chattel in human form. Their marriage, if one can call it that, is one of convenience. For the privilege of having a roof over her head, she must tend to Mister’s farm, children and sexual needs. She must also endure beatings and the knowledge that she has two children, who are the product of rape by her stepfather, somewhere out in the world. Nettie, the younger sister, eventually runs away to escape that stepfather and settles in Africa working as a missionary, too far away to easily communicate with the sister she dearly loves. At the heart of the story are the letters the sisters pen to one another for decades, letters that never reach their recipients until the two are in middle age. Celie, the sister around whom the story revolves, survives her plight by following the examples set by the strong women in her life.
When viewed as simply a theatrical production, The Color Purple is quite good. Jeannette Bayardelle, who plays Celie, possesses both the voice and the stage presence necessary to move an audience to sympathy for this seemingly poor, dumb girl. Felicia P. Fields literally takes the stage by storm the minute Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, makes her first appearance. Sofia as played by Fields is head and shoulders above Sofia as played by Oprah in the film version. This is no small feat; Oprah’s portrayal of Sofia was worthy of the critical acclaim it garnered. On the whole, the performances were wonderful, as were the staging and the costume design. Nevertheless, someone with a knowledge of history leaves the theater with a sense of disgust.
While love is a prominent theme in Alice Walker’s novel, it is not the only theme. Let us not forget that the novel, movie and musical are set at a time when blacks and whites lived in separate and unequal worlds where racism and the spectre of racially motivated violence were omnipresent. Readers of the novel cannot ignore the significance of the racial schisms that deeply influence the lives of the characters in both America and Africa. The musical is either unable or unwilling to venture too deeply into such waters. To call it a disappointment would be too kind an assessment. In its incarnation as a musical, The Color Purple devolves into a racial stereotype of the worst kind: that of darkies happily singing and dancing their way through life when there is very little to sing and dance about. Oprah and Quincy Jones (who is also one of the producers) ought to be ashamed of themselves. Their one-dimensional version of The Color Purple is an affront to those of us who believed depictions of black people on-screen and on-stage were moving forward. Where is August Wilson when you need him?