Gardner, Thomas Star in Circle Players' Collaboration With TSU on THE COLOR PURPLE
For only the second time in Circle Players' 63 year history, the venerable community theater company will join with Nashville's Tennessee State University to collaborate on the production of one of contemporary theater's most beloved works: The Color Purple. The musicalized version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple features an all-star cast of local performers from both the Nashville theater community and TSU's student body.
Circle Players and TSU last worked together in 1997 to present Miss Evers' Boys, David Feldshuh's play about the "Tuskeegee experiments," that was presented at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre.
The Color Purple, which features a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother) and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, will be presented at TSU's Cox-Lewis Theatre. Celebrating its centennial in 2012, the historically black university provides an appropriate setting for the presentation of the musical about an abused black teenager who grows up to be an outspoken, courageous and vital woman.
"It's an epic story, the story of a girl who overcomes adversity and all kinds of obstacles while holding on to her faith," says Clay Hillwig, who co-directs the production with Tim Larson. "It deals with themes that need to be discussed, but they happen to come along with amazing music."
Hillwig can't wait to see the opening number performed in front of an audience on opening night: "['Mysterious Ways'] is a gospel song, sung at church, and it is such a strong number that I expect people in the audience to get off their seats and dance, that's how powerful it is."
Opening on Broadway in 2005, with Oprah Winfrey as one of the lead producers, Hillwig and Larson both embrace the notion that The Color Purple is not your run-of-the-mill musical comedy-certainly, it's not a lighthearted show.
The musical is set in the early 1900s, the location is rural Georgia, where the main character Celie is 14 and pregnant for the second time, when she is married off to an abusive local farmer. To call attention to the musical's sensitive subject matter, Circle Players partners with the Sexual Assault Center of Nashville to raise awareness of the issues of domestic violence.
"My favorite part of the show is 'I'm Here'; it's a ballad that Celie sings when she realizes she has the strength to be on her own. To me, it's the most powerful moment of the show," suggests Larson.
LaToya Gardner, who plays Celie, agrees: "Celie starts off a victim, but her love and trust in God pulls her through. She didn't ask for the things that happened in her life, but she turns it around and takes charge. I love that about her character."
A graduate of TSU, Gardner shares The Color Purple stage with several alumni, TSU students and members of the community. She says she love that Circle Players is collaborating with TSU's Theatre Department to bring the show to the stage, although she admits to a healthy bout of nerves when thinking about the endeavor.
"It's my community, and it's extra fun because this character is so familiar to people and is so popular, the audience will feel like they are joining this family of characters," Gardner explains.
"It's a show for every community. Everyone needs to be reminded that love and trust can really pull you through."
Marc Payne, assistant professor in TSU's Department of Communications, agrees, explaining that faculty, staff and students are eager to share The Color Purple experience with Circle Players' loyal audiences.
"We are really happy to be working with Circle Players to make this production happen, especially since this is the 100th anniversary of TSU," Payne says. "We like the idea of bringing in other organizations to help us celebrate this big event."
In addition to Gardner, the cast also features James Rudolph as Mister; Justin Boyd as Harpo; Cristina Fentress as Sofia; Krystal Nichols as Squeak; Kelsey Porter as Nettie; and James Dickerson.
J. Karen Thomas, who has made her home in Los Angeles for the past several years, returns to Tennessee for a supporting role in ABC's Nashville television series, and will play the infamous Shug Avery in The Color Purple. Thomas made a name for herself in local theater earlier during her career, thanks to appearances with Tennessee Repertory Theatre in such award-winning productions as Ain't Misbehavin'.
The Color Purple opens Thursday, October 25, and runs through Sunday, November 4, at the Cox-Lewis Theater on the campus of Tennessee State University at 3500 John A. Merritt Blvd. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors ages 60 and up. Group discounts are available by calling (615) 332-7529. A special discount is offered for TSU students and faculty who present a campus ID at the box office. Tickets can be purchased online at www.circleplayers.net or by phone (615) 332-7529. Individual tickets will also be on sale at the box office at the Cox-Lewis Theater one hour before each performance.
pictured (from top): LaToya Gardner and James Rudolph; (middle photo, left to right) Justin Boyd (Harpo), Cristina Fentress (Sofia), Krystal Nichols (Squeak), J.Karen Thomas (Shug), James Rudolph (Mister), Kelsey Porter, James Dickerson, and LaToya Gardner, seated (Celie); and (bottom) Kelsey Porter and LaToya Gardner--photos by Mandy Whitley Photography