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Interview: Tinuke Craig Chats THE COLOR PURPLE - AT HOME From Leicester Curve Online

The fast-rising director on bringing the emphasis back to the show itself and not the tribunal.

Interview: Tinuke Craig Chats THE COLOR PURPLE - AT HOME From Leicester Curve Online

The fast-rising director Tinuke Craig has distinguished herself of late with the adventuresome work of Sarah Kane's Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre and plays by debbie tucker green both at Chichester and the Young Vic. Since 2019, she has fielded various iterations of her first-ever musical, The Color Purple, which was acclaimed in performance at Leicester's Curve Theatre and the Birmingham Hippodrome.

That same show is returning from 16 February for a streamed version following in the wake of Curve's Sunset Boulevard - At Home, which generated applause in concert online. This subsequent concert reboot has been accompanied, as timing would have it, by an ongoing tribunal involving the performer, Seyi Omooba, originally cast in the defining role of Celie.

"We have disputed all claims made by Seyi Omooba against our theatre in the recent employment tribunal," Chris Stafford, chief executive of The Curve, said in a statement, adding, "We await news of the decision from the employment judge, which we hope will be at the end of this week." Legal proceedings notwithstanding, what matters most is the show itself, as Craig (pictured below) in conversation one recent lunchtime made eloquently clear.

Am I right that you're actually the first Black woman to direct this musical, which of course puts Black women at the centre of the narrative?

There may well have been smaller-scale productions [of The Color Purple] directed by a Black woman that I don't know about, but there's something really nice about being able to say that I'm certainly one of the first. I think it gives us a shorthand to talk about stuff and a more immediate access point so that the company know that I know what I'm talking about, which means that perhaps we can go a little deeper. There are cultural references that feel so inherent to us, and there's something nice about not having to do any explaining.

What was your prior relationship to the material?

I knew [Alice Walker's 1982] novel as the way in, and had seen the [Steven Spielberg] film once or twice. I don't even know, though, how aware I was of the fact that this had been a stage musical, which was nice in some ways since it meant I didn't have the pressure of having seen prior productions when I was offered the job.

Interview: Tinuke Craig Chats THE COLOR PURPLE - AT HOME From Leicester Curve Online How does it feel to be doing this particular musical in the wake of Black Lives Matter?

I think the show means something a bit different now, and there are lines that do ping out in a way to make it more alive. What's great is to be able to do the production knowing that we are part of a conversation that actually allows the show to land as not just a show about race but also about a power structure to do with gender.

How does that awareness manifest itself in practice?

It's about what we can do to make sure that our production shows you the black struggle but that it also shows you black joy and black love and the love between black women and understanding the beauty of that. This is a show about a woman who finds out what the power of love is, and by discovering that love, she's able to self-actualise.

With that in mind, do you worry that the ongoing tribunal [which pertains to homophobic remarks made on Facebook in 2014 by the performer who has been dismissed] may distract from the work itself, or is all publicity essentially good publicity, as is often said?

I don't know, really; that's a good question. I'd like to think that investment [in terms of media attention] will transfer itself on to the show, because that's what I care about. I'm hoping people will go, "OK, let's see what they did then." But when it comes to the tribunal itself, I'm trying to stay out of it as best I can.

How has it been reconceiving the show for the faster, very different requirements of a camera and online?

We're doing across 5 days rehearsal and 3 days tech what we had a month or more to do in 2019, but in a way, this version feels really pure. Because there are no scenic distractions and we have exactly what we need and no more, we've been able to go for the real heart of the piece and the meaning of the scene. There's something exciting, too, about knowing that people around the world will be watching what we've done. Theatre without a live audience can feel kind of dead but we've got to remember all the people who may be out there watching.

Interview: Tinuke Craig Chats THE COLOR PURPLE - AT HOME From Leicester Curve Online
T'Shan Williams (Celie) and Danielle Fiamanya (Nettie)

What are your thoughts on T'Shan Williams, the galvanic performer who ended up playing Celie?

She's so brilliant: I'm just such a T'Shan Williams fan. There's an incredible stillness to her - a real "still waters run deep" thing, which allows you to project whatever you want on her. I don't mean that in terms of T'Shan being a blank canvas but more to do with the fact that she's captivating and hard to pin down at the same time. And now that we have the camera, people can really see how much she does with her face while at the same time hearing her beautiful voice.

Are you surprised to find yourself doing a musical given a weighty CV highlighted by such names as Sarah Kane and debbie tucker green?

No, I'm not, in fact musicals are how I got into theatre growing up. I'm from London and my birthday is four days before Christmas, so every year my family would go and see a musical. For a while my entire relationship to theatre was musicals: Starlight Express and Cats were all I really cared about [laughs]. My earliest memory is being 6 and watching Electra [in Starlight] come out of the stage floor and thinking, "I want to be in this; I want to eat it!"

Wow, sounds as if we should be lobbying Andrew Lloyd Webber to put you at the helm of that show's next revival!

Let me do it, let me do it! The truth is, I wasn't a play person until my late teens. And in career terms, young directors tend not to be given a musical because of the costs. You've got to wait until you've done some of the smaller other stuff for a musical even to be on your wish list. It doesn't help that directors in England don't jump back and forth [between genres]. We're very "stay in your lane" here in England.

You garnered raves both sides of the Atlantic with your Chichester revival last autumn of Sarah Kane's deliberately abstract play Crave, which was performed live before migrating by necessity online.

Yes, and in some ways it feels like these are my two directing modes: large-scale musicals with big casts and plays with characters called 1, 2 and 3! You've got a play with no plot followed by the most show-bizzy show: those are my areas of expertise [laughs].

Between this and Crave, it actually sounds as if lockdown hasn't been so bad for you.

You know, I think I have been really, really lucky. There have of course been long periods where I had nothing to do but my embroidery, and last night I did buy some roller skates, I guess in keeping with what I was saying about Starlight Express [laughs]. But I do feel as if I've been carrying my lucky stars with me. I have no idea what I'm directing next and I may never work again, but I have been very, very lucky indeed.

The Color Purple - At Home at Curve Theatre, Leicester, is available to stream from 16 February until 7 March

Read our review of the 2019 production here

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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