By Lynda Lacayo
“Uh-Oh,” the Tony Award-winning revival of “The Color Purple” is coming to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, June 19-24. The soulful musical about the triumph of the human spirit to overcome adversity and succeed features a star-stunned cast. The touring company cast includes three leading ladies traveling straight from the Great White Way to the byways and highways of America. Adrianna Hicks movingly plays Celie, Carla R. Stewart is the tawdry nightclub temptress Shug Avery and Carrie Compere is feisty, bold and bawdy Sofia.
There are, of course, strong male roles in “The Color Purple.” And it is these bad boys who highlight this story about the spirit and strength of the women. “The Color Purple” covers the 40-year history (1909-1949) of a young African-American woman who overcomes the hardships of her time and environment to find her own distinctive voice in the world.
Actress/singer Carrie Compere reprises her Broadway role of Sofia, one of the two strong-willed women who change Celie’s life by encouraging her to stand up for herself. Compere’s “Color Purple” Broadway stint started as a “church lady,” but she became the official Sofia when the lead, Danielle Brooks, left the show. She jumped at the chance to step into Sofia’s shoes and make them her own. She says, “The tour has really given me an opportunity to become more grounded in the character. My preparation for Sofia on tour was a little different that it was on Broadway. This time I had a chance to sit with it a little bit and bring integrity to the character. I wasn’t rushed, I had time to cultivate what I wanted her to sound like and move like and look like.”
Compere, who had read the book, seen the movie and the original Broadway production, says, “I was deeply influenced by the story and I thought it was beautiful. And then going into the Broadway revival, it became something I never, ever thought it could be. We call it the stripped-down version; we use minimal props. Director and scenic designer John Doyle was very, very intentional in doing that. It was a little scary at first, because you don’t know how people will perceive it or if the story can be told through chairs, quilts, baskets and blankets. But it is a strikingly woven piece on stage, even in its simplicity. I am so proud to be in it.”
The absence of elaborate staging places the spotlight directly on the score and book. Compere describes it as “definitely tampered down. We use chairs to set scenes and to let the audience know where we are in the next sequence, to make a picture for them. It is all very simple and this puts the focus on the story of these magnificent, flawed personalities and also on the music. The music effectively embodies each character’s story. It captures audiences’ attention because they have to really focus in on what’s being said and sung.”
The audience is introduced to Compere’s character Sofia when she is very young, pregnant and about to marry Celie’s stepson Harpo. Compere describes her as a “willful, strong woman who has seen a lot and been through a lot.” She says, “Throughout the course of the show, the audience discovers that she has had to deal with different forms of abuse from family members. The message of abuse is again presented in her marriage. There’s a song she sings, ‘Hell, No,’ when she confronts Celie about the fights she’s been having with Harpo. For me, this song means everything, what with the ‘me too’ going on in our country and really around the world. It’s a stand-up-and-fight-for-yourself song. It says others don’t have the right to abuse you, specifically through domestic violence, sexual harassment or whatever form of craziness that this comes in. She is the first woman that Celie sees standing up to men. I think Sofia influences Celie’s perspective on life when she shows her strength, and her unabashed, unapologetic courage. As Celie becomes stronger, they help to heal each other’s wounds.”
The show runs the gamut from incest to infanticide to emotional degradation and lesbianism, subjects usually taboo in a musical. Compere agrees that there are controversial aspects to the show, but says, “I love that we have created a stage that allows people to interpret these things in their own way. We let audiences figure things out for themselves without pushing any rhetoric or demand that they think in a certain way. We present what it is in a truthful way.”
Much of the credit for overcoming the musical’s more challenging emotional aspects goes to the inventive songwriting team. They have created an inspirational musical message that remains true to the plot and characters. They tell the tale through bluesy ballads, jazz with pizazz and good old-time gospel harmonies.
As Compere explains, “The show is set in early 1900s Georgia and we definitely have taken the music from the bowels of the south. It’s a combination of styles and the songwriters did an amazing job telling the story, not just through the lyrics but also through the style of compositions.”
Each character has a signature song that belongs only to that character and for Sofia that song is “Hell, No.” Compere says, “It represents her feisty personality but in that one song you see her go from an angry, vulnerable, loving, caring girl to becoming this fighter. It’s like she’s saying, come on girls, we can do this.”
The timeless tale of “The Color Purple” celebrates the restorative power of love and the value in having a zest for life. Its theme of empowerment for women is especially relevant in today’s world.
As Oprah Winfrey once said, “There’s something deeply magical, connected to a spiritual force I can’t explain, surrounding ‘The Color Purple.’”
“All We Got to Say” is to shout out a hearty hallelujah that “The Color Purple” has been reborn. The revival is at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Segerstrom Hall, June 19-24. For tickets and information: The Box Office, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; phone, 714-556-2787; and online SCFTA.org. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.