The source novel for 'The Color Purple,' which will come to ASU Gammage from April 17 to April 22, is almost 40 years old — but for the play's cast and director, the story of Celie is as relevant as ever, with new life breathed into it by contemporary feminist movements such as #MeToo.
The musical, directed by John Doyle and based on the novel by Alice Walker, follows Celie, an African American woman living in the pre-World War II American South, as she and other characters learn about self-acceptance and love in a life of hardship.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage, said Doyle’s “essentialist” approach, which minimizes intricate set design and puts a focus on the actors, sets this production apart from other versions of the story. She said those who have experienced the story before should still attend for a new perspective on Celie’s journey.
“This is the power of John Doyle, he makes you focus on the story with the way he directs it,” she said. “There are parts of that story that — even though you may have seen the musical, read the book or seen the film — you’ve forgotten. It just brought it to life.”
Jennings-Roggensack said a driving force of the play is the strength exhibited by female characters, especially Celie. She tied it to the empowering messages of movements like #MeToo, which was founded by Tarana Burke as a way to empower young female sexual assault survivors — especially women of color — and give them the means to heal within a safe, understanding community.
“('The Color Purple') is a strong human story, but it is a story of strength: the strength of being a woman and being able to rise through these conditions,” she said. “It’s also recognizing who you are, loving who you are and not letting other people define you.”
Erica Durham, who plays the character Squeak, agreed, citing the Time’s Up movement, which seeks to end workplace sexual harassment and inequality, and trending empowerment hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic.
For Durham, the play's continuing relevance is exemplified by one of its standout lines: "If God ever listened to a poor, colored woman, the world would be a different place."
“Really, Celie is the perfect portrayal of how the African American woman is treated in America,” Durham said. “I think it can really show audiences, whether you are a person of color or not, that the role of the African American woman has always been tough and it’s still tough today, but that these beautiful African American women, with black girl magic, are coming together and we’re rising up.”
Both Durham and Jennings-Roggensack emphasized the importance of the duality of each character, and how their flaws help make the play realistic.
“These are wholly formed characters, wholly formed human beings, with their strengths and their weaknesses all together on the stage,” Jennings-Roggensack said.
Durham said she believes stories like that of "The Color Purple" are vital within educational settings such as ASU.
“I know that for me — I graduated college about two years ago — when shows like this would come to our university, it was important for young people to sit and see something historic, of course,” she said. “But just to realize that the past does have a way of repeating itself sometimes, and that we need to look behind to move forward.”
Sharon Bramlett-Solomon, an associate professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications who teaches race, gender and media courses, shared a similar sentiment. She said the play, as a classic, will always have relevance to modern society.
“From Colin Kaepernick, to the #MeToo movement, to Black Lives Matter, there is a rainbow of things immersed in 'The Color Purple' that we identify with in contemporary society,” Bramlett-Solomon said. “We live in a nation whose ideals are saying that all men are created equal, but we have never lived up to that creed. It’s on paper, it’s in the Constitution of the United States, but we have never lived up to that philosophy.”
She said the empowering messages Alice Walker first incorporated into her novel speak to a movement that transcends time.
“When women unite, when women form coalitions to better their treatment in terms of equity, equality and the promotion of women, we can advance ourselves and be the women inside of us that we want to be or can be,” she said.
However, Durham said the public should know that audience members of every race and gender will find something in the musical that speaks to them.
“I think that, sometimes, people look at 'The Color Purple' as a story that’s only geared toward one group of people, but it’s truly a story that transcends race, religious belief and everything,” she said. “I think there is something for everyone in this show.”
Tickets are currently on sale at the ASU Gammage website.