Hoopla

'Color Purple' musical runs emotional spectrum

#x201c;Miss Celie's Pants#x201d; is lead actress Mariah Lyttle's favorite moment in #x201c;The Color Purple,#x201d; comi
“Miss Celie’s Pants” is lead actress Mariah Lyttle’s favorite moment in “The Color Purple,” coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Jan. 24 and 25. The song comes at the point where Celie has turned her knack for designing and creating pants into a business, giving her a measure of freedom. “Not only is this one of the only upbeat songs that Celie gets to sing, but her entire world surrounding her is a bit brighter and more upbeat, as well,” Lyttle said. Behind her are (from left) Gabriella Rodriguez, Elizabeth Adabale, Sandie Lee, Parris Lewis and Shelby A. Sykes. (Jeremy Daniel)
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The Tony Award-winning revival of “The Color Purple,” emerging from a 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, a 1985 Steven Spielberg film starring Golden Globe-winner Whoopi Goldberg, and a 2005 Broadway musical, is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Jan. 24 and 25.

Mariah Lyttle is making her national tour debut in the lead role of Celie, a young woman growing up in the South in the most heinous home life, who eventually finds her way out.

A Bridgeport, Conn., native, Lyttle recently earned a BFA in musical theater at Ithaca College, and will be moving to New York to further her career. She began singing in her church choir at age 10, and became hooked on theater as a freshman in high school, when she portrayed Sarah in “Ragtime.”

“When I couldn’t stop crying after we closed our last show — for DAYS after — I pretty much knew that I’d be stuck with this for the rest of my life. That’s how much I loved it,” she said via email.

Hoopla caught up with her during a recent tour stop in Dallas, Texas.

Q. What does the color purple represent in Celie’s story, to the extent that it gives the book, film and musical its name?

A. Scientific research shows that the color “purple” is actually not a color at all. It is not an apparent color on the primary spectrum. It is a hue “created” by the combination of the colors red and blue.

Theoretically speaking, to see the color “purple” is to believe in something that is not physically there.

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This is completely apropos of the central idea of faith in this story. When everything starts to go wrong in Celie’s life, and when she truly believes that things won’t get better, she is reminded to keep the faith. “Like the color purple, where do it come from?”

Q. Who is Celie and how does she evolve during the show?

A. In the beginning of this story, we see Celie as a young, downtrodden 14-year-old girl. She lives a life of constant abuse, both physically and verbally, from her father as well as Albert, referred to as “Mister” for the better half of the show. Her only hope is within her sister and God.

As time goes on, Celie is taught the expressions of strength and true love from Shug Avery and Sofia, two empowering women she meets when she is forced to live with Mister. Soon enough, she realizes that these attributes have always been within her, and by the end of the show, she is not afraid to speak out and stand up for herself. We watch her grow like a flower that fully blossoms over time.

Q. What new territory does this require you as an actor to explore?

A. Because I have not lived half of the life that Celie has (in terms of age), I made it my top priority to embody the characteristics of an older woman based on primary examples in my life.

For example, I clocked how women behaved, spoke, and carried themselves from as early as my age (22) and how that developed and changed over time toward the age that Celie reaches by the end of the show (54).

This included changing my character vocally, physically, but most importantly, mentally.

The way Celie reacts to certain things in the beginning of the show is certainly not how she would react to something by the end of the show.

Q. With all the violence, the book is hard to read and the 1985 movie was hard to watch. How does adding music alter the viewer — and actor — experience?

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A. Personally, music is one of the best ways that I can stay engaged in a story line. (Which is why I think people prefer the story of “Hamilton” as a musical rather than a weeklong lesson in their 10th grade history class.)

I think it’s beautiful how music can really be a cathartic experience. It really makes me want to tell the story. Hearing the beat of the drum, or the way that the piano swells under the most honest and heartbreaking lyrics or scenes, it really makes you realize that this is a story worth telling. It’s captivating.

There is no doubt that it is hard to hear and witness what goes on in this story, but music is really the window to the soul, and it makes it a little more bearable.

Q. What styles of music will your audiences hear?

A. They will hear everything from R&B, gospel, as well as some jazz themes here and there. The score for this musical is truly brilliant — combining a multitude of music heavily identified in African American culture.

Q. What are your favorite musical moments and scenes for Celie?

A. My favorite song, by far, is “Miss Celie’s Pants.” For a while, we’re set in Celie’s gloomy past. We witness her trials in tribulations, and they’re fully realized by the beautiful — yet dark — themes set in the costumes and set designs, and the music as well.

The first glimpse of brightness we see is when Shug Avery enters her life in Act I. By the time we reach “Miss Celie’s Pants,” we see just what kind of impact Shug has imparted on her.

Not only is this one of the only upbeat songs that Celie gets to sing, but her entire world surrounding her is a bit brighter and more upbeat, as well.

Q. What kind of experiences are your audiences in for?

A. The audience will laugh. They will cry. They’ll gasp in disbelief. They’ll shudder at some moments.

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But most of all, they’ll realize and understand the importance of faith, regardless of what their backgrounds are. I don’t think anyone will leave this show the same way they came.

Q. What does it mean to you, personally, to be immersed in this story, music and production? What do you admire about Celie and have you found any common ground with her?

A. I count it a sheer privilege to be able to tell this story every night. I relate to Celie in so many ways, but most of all, I admire her strength — something I am working on myself.

I see myself in Celie, and if that is true, then I know that I, too, can be strong enough to overcome any of life’s adversities with just a little faith.

Q. What will you always carry with you, from this role?

A. Never be afraid to stand up for yourself. God gave you a voice — use it. You never know whose life you’ll change or impact, Including your own.

Q. What do you hope your audiences carry with them after they’re left the theater?

A. Again, the idea of faith. I really think it’s important to enter this theater with an open an receptive mind. Yes, this show is centered around African Americans in the early 1900s in the South, where religion plays a huge part in their lives. However, this show is for ANYONE, regardless of what they identify or believe in. That’s because it’s about faith.

I think anyone can dwell on the concept of having hope for the better, even when times get rough.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

• What: “The Color Purple”

• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

• When: 8 p.m. Jan. 24; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25

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• Tickets: $5 to $85 adults; $50 to $70 youths and college students; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1- (800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu

• Show’s website: colorpurple.com

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