Papermill Playhouse in Millburn New Jersey is celebrating its 80th anniversary and the first show of the season was the touring production of The Color Purple revival. I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews so i was really pumped. I had known the show did wonders for representation for women of color in the theatre community so I was over the moon to finally be in the audience but also felt a tinge of embarrassment for waiting as long as I had.
Do you ever have an experience during a show where, whether it’s a song or line or scene...something in your soul just clicks? Like in that moment you learn something new about yourself? You see something happen on stage and you think “Wow, that’s me!” or you see a family member or friend in one of the characters? That doesn’t normally happen to me. I mean sure, I’ve related to characters in musicals before, but something that night felt different. I saw so much of myself that as I sit here writing about it, my eyes are filling with tears. I’d like to share with you a list of times I was overwhelmed with emotion during this production of The Color Purple:
When Celie and Nettie are playing their hand game before church, talking about their hopes and dreams, I thought of myself and my sister and our unwavering bond. Celie and Nettie had vastly different lives and wants in their lives, but they were always a team, no matter what. My heart was ripped from my body when Celie let herself be taken as Mr. Johnson’s wife to keep Nettie’s dream of being a teacher alive. It was torn to shreds in front of me when she was kicked out of his home and he told Celie she’d never see her sister again. I could never fathom living in a world where my sister wasn’t a phone call or a text away.
Sofia’s “Hell No” in context is about her not taking Harpo’s newfound violent side. She tells Celie to leave Mr. Johnson and fight back. Out of context it is an anthem for the times if there ever was one-not taking shit from anybody just because you feel like you have to, or because you love them. That song was a smack-in-the-face kind of wake-up call but about friendships I’ve kept for too long because we have history or because they needed me. That’s not the case.
The relationship between Shug and Celie is one that I never saw coming but now am eternally grateful for. The scene where Celie is nursing Shug back to heath was one of the most intimate moments I’ve ever experienced in a theater. It was so pure and personal that I almost felt like I had to look away.
I know I mentioned Shug and Celie, but their kiss at the end of the first act needed its own spot on this list. During “What About Love” every part of my body froze. I never focused so much on a scene in my life. It was the first time that I can recall seeing a proclamation of love between two women of color. I do not have the words to describe how my soul felt watching that final scene before intermission. Tears are streaming down my face and my voice is caught in my throat just thinking about it. And the overwhelming hope welled up in Celie’s eyes when she finds out Nettie is alive made me feel like anything was possible.
When Celie finally leaves Mister, it took everything in me to keep my body in my chair instead of jumping for joy. Oh, how I despise that man, even after his redemption. During most of this story, Celie is unable to stand up for herself and be her own person. After she leaves him to go to Memphis with Shug, there's a weight that is lifted from her soul and it showed.
Seeing the way Celie finds her way when she starts making the brightly colored pants made me so proud. I felt in myself a sense of pride in her, and in myself. This year has been such a coming-into-myself-as-a-person kind of year and watching her start to find her own way brought tears to my eyes.
“I’m Here.” That is all.
Nettie’s return and her reunion with her sister was one of the most glorious moments on a stage I had ever witnessed. The look on Celie’s face as she realizes who i seeing Huckleberry Pie, and being able to hold her children...I do not have the words to describe how uplifting that finale was.
Seeing The Color Purple took me on an emotional and personal story I did not expect to take. I’m so glad I was able to see this show, my only regret is not seeing it sooner.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy.)