- The Color Purple by Marsha Norman, and: The Scottsboro Boys by David Thompson
Musical theatre history is dotted with those rare performances where an actor and character are so perfectly matched as to result in a transcendent experience for spectators. Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory was astonishing, not only for her powerful voice and nuanced acting, but her luminous presence, filling the space, and her audience, with Celie’s strength and ultimate joy. Unable to take our eyes off Erivo, we consequently saw what Celie sees. This production foregrounded the viewing relationships among characters, exploring Celie as both the subject at rest and the object in action. John Doyle’s direction and set design facilitated this summit between a moving performance and a moved audience, guiding our concern for Celie and our appreciation of Erivo, staged on an expansive three-quarter thrust stage made of bleached floorboards. Similarly multitalented, director-choreographer Susan Stroman remounted the 2010 Broadway production of The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic with a company of British and American performers. They not only delivered fast, sharp dance performances rarely seen in British musical theatre, but seized the musical’s expressionist style to unsettle audiences with a historic miscarriage of justice. With veteran musical theatre directors at the helm, both The Color Purple and The Scottsboro Boys showcased the immense talent of their triple-threat performers. Both musicals also featured oppressed African American characters, suggesting that the most powerful experiences for musical theatre audiences and performers alike may be those that challenge both the performers’ skills and the audiences’ expectations of musical theatre.
While the 2005 musical based on the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel premiered in a traditional Broadway theatre, the Menier production was intimate in an auditorium of less than 200 seats. The ensemble, playing churchgoers, launched the performance by welcoming and blessing the audience, immediately establishing a warm atmosphere and a sense of community. The brightness generated by the ensemble’s committed performances and Doyle’s simple though appealing set design [End Page 444] combined to create a tension with the oppressive attitudes and behavior that Celie faces. As sisters Celie and Nettie, Erivo and Abiona Omonua were exceptionally well-cast, Erivo expressing a wistful innocence alongside Omonua’s sense of wonder. Doyle’s staging supported both the sisters’ indelible bond, as well as the separation they would face for much of their lives. Singing from diagonally opposite corners of the stage, their pure, clear voices met and blended to fill the space. Brian Morales’s orchestrations added detail to Doyle’s spare design, further developing the characters, as well as the musical’s dramaturgy.
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Celie, having already had two children taken away from her by her father, is given by her father to the equally cruel Mister, who needs a wife to care for his children. Mister prefers the younger and prettier Nettie. When he later assaults Nettie and she fights back, he bars her from his property and seeing Celie. Abused for most of her life, first by her father and then by her husband, Celie is worn down and surprises her sister-in-law when she agrees with the men that the only way to make a woman obey is to abuse her. In response, Sophia Nomvete (as Sofia) delivered a powerhouse performance of “Hell, No!” The ladies of the ensemble, in light muslin dresses belying their toughness, provided further tension as they concurred with Sofia. Doyle seated Celie at the downstage edge of the stage as an observer during this number, and she seemed to savor and...