Living 'Color'

Play's message of transformation through struggle resonates for many women

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/17/06

BY KARYN D. COLLINS
STAFF WRITER

They stand patiently by the stage door of the Broadway Theatre, women of every age, hue and background, waiting for one of the actresses from the hit musical "The Color Purple" to emerge after a performance.

Every show has its share of autograph seekers. Few have scenes like this one — women hugging performers, thanking them, telling them how much they can relate.

"The women come to us backstage and say, "That's me. I've had it so bad. I've been through this.' They identify," said actress Felicia P. Fields, who plays Sofia, one of the show's leads. "I've had women — strangers — just put their head on my shoulder and cry because they felt we were speaking to them.

"White, black, all ages, all races: There is something about this show that crosses the lines."

"The Color Purple" follows the journey of Celie, who, at 14, is dealing with a series of horrors — incest, having her two children given away, sexual and verbal abuse from her husband, losing her sister and the only person who loves her — and humiliations, such as being asked to play hostess to her husband's mistress.

Celie's ultimate triumph over all of this is aided by the presence and tough-talk guidance from the play's two other main female characters — Shug, the mistress who becomes Celie's best friend and lover, and Sofia, the tough-talking wife of Celie's stepson.

Since 1982, when it was published, Alice Walker's novel has been lauded as one of the most important novels in feminist literature. "The Color Purple" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1985, launching the acting careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

The Broadway musical version (Winfrey is one of the producers) opened in December at the Broadway Theatre. The show earned 11 Tony Award nominations on Tuesday, including Best Musical.

Though it chronicles a black woman's personal triumph, scholars long have hailed the novel as holding universal truths for women.

" "The Color Purple' is one of the most important novels in speaking to women and their struggles. The women (in the story) help you understand what womanhood is all about," said G. Oty Agbajoh-Laoye, associate professor of English and director of Africana studies at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.

Agbajoh-Laoye said one of those key universal themes is the story's message of change.

"Each one of the major characters transforms into a different person," said Agbajoh-Laoye, who focused on Walker's work for her doctoral dissertation. "Another important message is the importance of female friendships and how it's important for women to band together."

With the Broadway production in full flower, the power of "The Color Purple" is a front-burner topic of discussion. The women who play the three main female roles in the show (and were each nominated for Tony Awards) are well aware of the powerful messages being sent by the characters they play.

"You can see it in people's faces — in the audience and at the stage door after the show. People will call out and say "Amen' when Celie sings that she has learned to love herself. You can feel the emotion in the theater," said LaChanze, the actress who plays Celie. "At times, doing this role can be exhilarating. And at other times, it's so heavy with emotion that I'm drained. I'm so full of emotion and hurt and empathy for who this woman is.

"In order to be true to this woman and her struggles with self-love and identity, I had to learn to open up to my own vulnerability and some of the insecurities I have as a black woman living in America today," LaChanze said.

Some critics of Walker's novel have questioned the validity of characters with such extreme life experiences. Others critical of "The Color Purple" — in its various forms over the years — have lambasted the story as one that bashes black men and portrays negative relationships and stereotypes of black men and women.

But the actresses said they saw parallels to the experiences of present-day women they knew or had heard about.

"The truth is hard to watch sometimes. Truth isn't pretty all the time. But the truth of the matter is there are people out there like these characters," Fields said. "I happen to know there are women out there like Sofia and I know there are some Celie's out there, too, unfortunately. And that needs to be said.

" "The Color Purple' is not anti-men or anti-black men. Shug loves men. Sofia loves men — as long as they treat her with respect. This show is pro-woman. You can be pro-woman and not be anti-man," she said.

That the character Celie finds herself and true love in the arms of a woman — the character Shug — is another controversy in "The Color Purple" that has sometimes raised eyebrows.

"It's a little disturbing to me when people say it's a gay love story," said actress Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who plays Shug, the woman who begins the story as Celie's husband's mistress, but ends up teaching Celie to love herself. "This is a story of sisterhood, of triumph. Shug shows Celie that you have to believe in yourself and you don't have to withstand all of this abuse.

"Shug represents balance," she said.

Added Withers-Mendes, "The Color Purple" isn't just about Celie's transformation.

"Shug has issues, too. She has issues with her dad (a preacher), which she covers up through promiscuity and her drinking and the drugs. She's hiding," she said. "Celie is the one who brings balance to Shug's life."

Said Agbajoh-Laoye: "None of these women is perfect. When we watch them change, we learn about making change ourselves. This is a story that makes us look at not just race but gender issues, class issues, relationship issues.

"It really is holding up a mirror, not to the past but to what is still happening now," she said.