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Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at The Woodlawn Theatre

The production runs through October 23rd

I have loved the Broadway Cast Recording of The Color Purple for years but have yet to see the production live. I'm so pleased that I waited. From the moment I walked into The Woodlawn Theatre I could tell that this show was special. Under the direction of Darcell Bios the entire environment of the theatre was transformed to specifically tell this story. Bios working with set designer Benjamin Grabill and Sound and Production Designer, Benjamin Farrar, infused the set and projection with symbolism that tied the story together in a way that was so special I can't imagine having the same experience with a different production. The centerpiece of the set is made of the Egyptian symbol for the soul and God, the winged sun disk, and pieces of wood that evoke a cage echoing the sentiments of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" by Dr. Maya Angelou. Beyond that initial hit of symbolism the set is made with broken pieces of wood representing the broken social structures in our country including both gender roles and racial inequities. The centerpiece has scattered letters from Nettie trapped in the cage as Celie is trapped and kept from her family and purple wild flowers that evoke the line "I think it piss God off if people walk pass the color purple in a field and not notice it." The detail put into this design enraptures the audience and leaves them excited and waiting in anticipation for the show to begin.

Before any notes are sung the audience is greeted by the comical, vocal powerhouse that is The Church Ladies played by Danielle King, Nerryl Williams, and Andrea Hardeman. These lovely ladies quickly became a fan favorite as they led us in hymns, filled us in on "town news" because they would never gossip, and engaging with the audience in character. The rapport they built with the audience showed because every time this powerhouse trio walked on stage the audience was ready for their message.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Color Purple the story centers on Celie, a young woman who is given into the hands of an abusive husband by an abusive father. Her husband separates her from her sister, Nettie, after Nettie refuses to sleep with him, which essentially puts Celie in a cage of his creation. She lives her life of abuse and isolation finding companionship in the women who come in and out of her life. After finding love in Shug Avery, a local celebrity and singer, Shug is able to help her leave her husband and eventually reunite with her sister Nettie. The story centers on the power of women and these women are powerful indeed.

Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at The Woodlawn Theatre Celie, played by Danica McKinney spends the majority of the performance on stage. McKinney not only rises to the occasion but is so vulnerable in her performance that you can't help but keep your eyes on her. She brought so much heart to the stage that by the end she, and the audience, were in tears. Not only is McKinney a phenomenal actress her voice is beautiful making it easy for the audience to actively follow Celie's story. Bios uses long bolts of fabric to help tell Celie's story. McKinney's interactions with the red fabric during painful moments and the purple fabric during loving moments were riveting. She imbued the fabric with power to help tell her story.

Nettie, played by Rebekah Williams, finds herself in Africa and separated from her sister. A different kind of isolation. Williams' portrayal of Nettie was moving. Every time she came on stage she commanded the space. Her voice held so much power she pulled you in with each note.

An audience favorite, Sofia, played by Evonne Nathaniel, was the first to poke holes in the very strong gender roles established by the men in this piece. Nathaniel's comedic timing, booming voice, and dynamic stage presence made the audience fall in love with her. As the audience experienced Sofia's trauma the tension in the room was palpable only broken when she came back to life with a chuckle and something that Celie had said.

Adding to the power of women Shug Avery, played by Jessica Winston, danced on stage and into everyone's hearts. She is considered an outcast for not settling down but finds power in herself. Winston's ability to not only be a sultry singer but also a vulnerable partner to Celie enraptured the heart of the audience. A highlight in the piece was how McKinney and Winston's voices blended together in "What About Love?" (my favorite song).

Providing some comic relief, Squeak, played by Julianna Pope was endearing, spunky, and a bit annoying which was perfect for the character.

Celie's brooding husband, Mister, played by Edward Burkley was the epitome of domineering, controlling husband. The balance came in his weakness for Shug Avery and Burkley did a masterful job switching between showing weakness and showing no fear in a way that made him easy to hate. Burkley's ability to show vulnerability on stage provided the opportunity for the audience to bond with him in the second act as his character changed his ways.

Mister's son, Harpo, played by John Bonner was the charming comedic relief that we needed in moments of tension. Harpo being Sofia's husband, put Bonner and Nathaniel volleying for power throughout the play and the two had a dynamic relationship that kept the audience laughing.

The ensemble on this piece was such an integral part of the storytelling. The vocal power in the ensemble filled the room and their energy gave life to the room. A standout in the ensemble was Campbell Reid Andrews who played several charming love interests in this piece. Their ability to bounce between characters with varying personalities, body shapes, and swagger was a delight to watch.

All and all The Color Purple at the Woodlawn Theatre is not only an amazing night of entertainment it is a phenomenal celebration of black creativity, life, and love.

Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at The Woodlawn Theatre
The cast of The Color Purple. Photo credit Siggi Ragnar.

From This Author - Bryan Stanton

Bryan Stanton is a theatre educator in San Antonio,TX. Prior to jumping into the classroom he worked as an Event and Show Producer for both SeaWorld San Antonio and SeaWorld San Diego. While in San... (read more about this author)

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