Color Them Very Purple
"The Color Purple" musical arrived on Baltimore's Hippodrome stage the night after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright staged his amazing performance of ego gratification at Washington's National Press Club.
The show gloriously advances this nation's African Americans. On the other side, the preacher managed to match the musical's color; in his case purple stood for envy and rage.
As for the show, my first review (a minor Tennessee Williams play) happened in February 1966; and subsequently I sat on the aisle for a number of musical glories. "My Fair Lady" and "The Man of La Mancha" head the list.
In all those 42 years no production has pleased me more than the theatrical version of Alice Walker's novel. She related a Black woman's survival of segregation's vicissitudes in the first century after slavery legally ended. With one notable exception, Ms. Walker's book dealt with the brutality and suffering African Americans wreaked on themselves.
In Baltimore these next three weeks, audiences have a chance to sample the joys people created to assuage the miseries. The novel's storyline remains intact but this is a different medium with its own demands.
Number after number Tuesday's opening night had me sitting taller and taller in the Hippodrome chair. The cast's magnificence is fully matched by the choreography, score, costumes and staging. I don't really know where to launch the praise.
Before gushing on, let me add the aside: Broadway treated this outstanding national treasure in a shabby fashion. With no cause for minority paranoia, I can wonder still if the Great White Way were not guilty of prejudice. The Tony judges carry the suspicion. There was plenty of cause for old-fashioned jealously, aside from color.
Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray came up with a score that permits the players a rich gamut of expressions and reactions. With the exception of occasion gospel shouts, during the first act they wrote entirely blues, the only cultural contribution Blacks made by themselves. Jazz evolved from Europeans and Americans, of all colors. My New Orleans childhood taught the differences.
The trio of music makers is very fortunate to enjoy their words and music delivered by a glorious crew. Jeannette Bayardelle forms a foundation for the story, as the young woman who refuses to be a victim. Felicia Fields, in the course of the evening, stamps into a dynamic icon" Hell, no!" As a famous singer, Angela Robinson is sexy, naughty and strong when the part wants. Everyone on stage has a voice to die for.
As the plot's villain, Rufus Bonds, Jr., delivers a number that came across as a scene from Porgy and Bess; he's powerful and dramatic and show-stopping. By the way, as I said the other night, "The Color Purple" is what George Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein hoped to create, as they each said at the time. They did not.
This is the great African American musical, which could only be delivered by African Americans, as you can see these nights in Baltimore.
No words can communicate the power of Donald Byrd's smashing dances. Purple's young men and women rank with the Russian Bolshoi. But a whole lot more earthy, sexy and physical. Their moves broke me up several times.
While I have in the past suggested buying tickets for various productions, "The Color Purple" moves right to the head of the list. Not many performances have me cheering out loud; this one did. It'll stay at Baltimore's Hippodrome a very limited time. By what I saw opening night, tickets will go fast.
As indicated at the start, while the musical is a great triumph for America's Blacks, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a sad disgrace.
Having been dragged into the presidential race by Barack Obama's enemies, he has decided to finish off African Americans' best chance for the White House. The preacher doesn't see it that way, of course.
The quotes provided to the media – certainly by the Clinton camp – were used to start a war on Black churches, he claims. He equates all-African Americans with himself and his ego. In defending his racial speeches, he further isolates people who are trying very hard to edge into the mainstream, where they richly belong.
The Rev. Wright forcefully demonstrates the Klan and its ilk are not alone in wanting the return of segregation. To defend him on the basis that the Black clergy provided solace and leadership in the past stinks. It condemns men, women and children to a separate status, which, after all, defines segregation.
In that sense, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright wants to see his people as mere characters in "The Color Purple."
I do not. They've earned better.