116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For several years, “The Color Purple” has been on the wish list for Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids, which opens the show Friday for a two-week run at CSPS Hall.
Initially, founding directors Cameron Sullenberger and Brian Glick weren’t sure they would be able to cast the show, in which 15 Black actors move Celie Johnson through 40 years of physical and emotional abuse, until she finally finds her voice — and the courage to create a new future.
“We always had it on our docket to do,” said Sullenberger, the show’s musical director. “We thought it would be a great vehicle, and then we realized we didn’t know if we really have all the African American actors at our disposal that we need.”
However, when Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry, Revival Theatre pledged to fully supported the movement, and committed the funding for producing the show.
“Even if it was going to be difficult, we thought it was important to do,” Sullenberger said.
What: Revival Theatre Company presents “The Color Purple”
Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: June 10 to 12 and 17 to 19, 2022; 7:30 p.m. June 10, 11 and 18; 8 p.m. June 17; 2:30 p.m. June 12 and 19
Rated: PG-13, for scenes of sexual and physical violence
“There’s an expense in terms of finding those actors, wherever they come from, to be a part of it,” added Glick, the show’s artistic director.
“We made that a goal this year, to do that, and in the wake of Black Lives Matter, showing more representation and diversity on our stage. So we just felt it was a good time to do it.”
Then came COVID’s omicron variant, scuttling plans to present the show last fall. But now Revival Theatre’s cast of actors, plus crew and orchestra, are plunging full-bore into this musical based on Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning book and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Oscar-nominated film.
The original Broadway musical version opened in 2005, with Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey among the producers.
“It didn’t make the splash they thought it was going to,” Sullenberger said. “There’s some wonderful things about that version, but it was too long and it tried to cover too many bases.
“When they cleaned it up, which has become kind of a trend on Broadway, and remounted it in 2015, they got it right,” he said. “They stripped all of the production content, trimmed down some of the songs (and) zeroed in on the real ethos of the story.”
That’s the version Revival Theatre is presenting, well-suited to CSPS Hall, with its seating capacity of 250.
“First and foremost, we love the story. We love the music,” Glick said. “It’s really, really a magical piece. And one of the things we pride ourselves in is being able to choose musicals with great books and equally great scores, and this is that quintessential version of that.”
The local professional troupe is testing the waters by performing the show over two weekends, June 10 to 12 and 17 to 19, instead of just one weekend, as Revival has done in the past.
That’s a more expensive venture, Glick said. “But we thought, let’s try it this year — if there’s any show to try it on, this is it. I’m excited to see how for the first time ever, word-of-mouth plays in.”
Set in the South in the early 20th century, it’s an epic saga spanning 40 years during which a teenage Celie is raped, abused and impregnated twice by her father. He gives away her children, then turns her over to the cruel widower “Mister,” who continues to physically and emotionally abuse her throughout their marriage.
In the process, she’s also torn away from her sister, Nettie, the only person with whom she’s felt love and safety.
Through this harrowing story, glimmers of hope and trust begin to emerge, wrapped in all the idioms the African American experience has rolled into the fabric of uniquely American music, Sullenberger said, including pop, twang, R&B, soul, jazz, funk and gospel.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re going to church, sometimes you feel like you’re B.B. King in a swanky juke joint,” he said.
The unifying music, as well as the supporting characters, help temper the underlying ugliness of Celie’s life.
”The beauty comes from the community, it comes from family, friends and neighbors,“ Glick noted. ”That’s where Celie finds the love and support she needs. And through God — that’s her guiding light — and especially through Shug Avery.“
Shug is a jazz singer and Mister’s longtime lover who lives elsewhere, but returns with her band, and brings down the house at Mister’s son’s new juke joint.
“When Shug Avery comes to town, not only do (she and Celie) fall in love as two characters, but Mister bends over backwards for Shug, so in a lot of ways, Shug is a protector when she’s around, from him acting out on Celie,” Glick said.
“Then you’ve got Sofia, who is like, ‘I’m a woman of my own, and no one’s gonna beat me. No one’s gonna raise a hand at me — so you need to stand on your own two feet and not put up with that.’
“ … The show is about finding your voice, the show’s about love and trust and all the things that we all experience in our day-to-day lives, and I think that’s why there are so many points to this story, whether they’re extreme elements or not so extreme, that so many people can relate to,” Glick added. “And then there’s an element of homosexuality, too, with Celie and Shug falling in love.
“Really, it is a story that covers a lot of gamuts of human experiences. That’s why it’s so smart and so intriguing, and the music just pairs up so well with this acting moments,” Glick said. “That’s what makes the two such a brilliant pair — the story and the music. It’s just so smart.”
The show features a mix of local and out-of-town actors, found through national casting notices, as well as an out-of-town choreographer and lighting designer, who also are Black. Some of the actors have done the show before, and bring that knowledge to the rehearsal process and their roles.
The leading women, however, are local or have local ties.
Stepping into Celie’s life is Treashana Baker, a familiar face and voice on the Corridor scene for years before she moved to Little Rock, Ark. The two other local leads are Alicia Monee as Shug Avery and Erica Faye as Sofia.
“It was important to us to show representation of our community, and to able to have those be the three female leads was great,” Glick said. “We didn’t have to look far — they’re right here, and they’re perfect for the roles — and we’re so thrilled about that.”
The show asks a lot of its performers.
“You have to be a top-rate vocalist to do some of this stuff,” Sullenberger said, “because it has extreme ranges. It draws from the church experience. Some of them are trained vocalists, some of them have music degrees, and some of the other ones are like, ‘This is my sister and she sings.’
“It requires them to explore their background — what they’ve learned — but it also stretches them to become musicians who count, to sing in extreme ranges, and to listen to one another. But so many are seasoned, they’ve sung in church choirs, they know what the sound is like. It’s fascinating to me — some are not trained, yet they came to the rehearsal process but knowing how to sing the song just like the recording.”
Sullenberger is able to tap into his years as music director and pianist in the 1990s at an African American church in south Dallas, an experience he calls “life changing.” It also gives him an insider’s knowledge of the music in this show that other white musicians may not have.
It allows him to “do shows that other people like me were afraid to do,” he said. “It’s funny how when you do something in you past, you never know how handy it’s gonna be.”
Having local actors who trust them and out-of-town actors and others on the creative team has been invaluable for two white directors presenting a show about the African American experience.
“But I don’t think that’s the most important thing,” Sullenberger said. “The most important thing — we’re in such a divided world, more divided than I ever remember us being when I was younger. But what a testament to music, because I’ll never understand the African American experience, but I do understand the music, and music is universal, and it’s the music that’s pulling us together.
“Thank God we have American musical theater and a show that’s so distinctly American. It’s the music that’s going to pull us together. …
“Music can divide, but this show is not about dividing people, it’s about unifying us. So that’s probably the most important thing that I’m getting from this. I always knew music was incredibly powerful to bring people together and to heal,” he said, “and maybe that’s why we’re doing this show.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org