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Theatre Review: The Color Purple

04 Mar 2009

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Jeannette Bayardelle (Celie) and LaToya London (Nettie). Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

For nearly a month now, Toronto’s Canon Theatre has been the home of Oprah Winfrey & friends’ acclaimed stage production of “The Color Purple”. Adapted by playwright Marsha Norman from Alice Walker’s award-winning 1982 novel and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Oscar-nominated film version of the same name, this theatrical incarnation continues to stir souls.

The Color Purple captures the reality of black women’s lives in the segregated Deep South of the 1920’s and their search for dignity and redemption against all odds. Alice Walker once said, “The black woman is one of America''s greatest heroes. . . . She has been oppressed beyond recognition.”

Indeed, the life story of the main character, Celie, which we discover through her letters to God and her younger sister Nettie, is nothing short of heroic. At an early age, she is raped by her step father and gives birth to two children who are taken away from her. She is then sold into marriage at the age of 14 only to end up the virtual house slave of Albert, whom she calls Mister, an older man who constantly abuses her physically and mentally.

Despite her dire circumstances, Celie moves forward in her path to self-discovery and emancipation. She is inspired in her quest by powerful women such as her step daughter-in-law Sofia and Albert’s hedonistic mistress Shug Avery.

Through Celie’s character, who personifies the downtrodden black female image of the pre Civil Rights era, continually being brought down by her own family, community and society for being “too ugly, too poor and too black”, Alice Walker offers us a powerful tale of redemption.

What makes the story and the play work is that Celie’s victorious journey is told through humour, sexual innuendo and everyday situations which are timeless. The gossip-obsessed church ladies who help narrate the story are welcome entertainment.

The show’s set design, music and lighting make The Color Purple an unforgettable experience.  Particularly captivating are the scenes of Nettie’s life in Africa which we discover through her letters to Celie. Also, the entire cast’s vocal abilities and stage presence cannot leave anyone unmoved.

The Color Purple is showing at Canon Theatre (244 Victoria Street) until March 14th. For more info, see www.mirvish.com.

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