Right now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Canadian major theatre premiere of The Colour Purple is taking audiences by storm at Neptune Theatre. I had heard as much from several of my peers in the Halifax theatre community, some attached to this production and others simply in awe of its quality and heart. One dear friend very plainly told me that it was the best show he’d ever seen on that stage. Now, I was anticipating an amazing experience, but no play had come close to toppling my favourite Neptune Theatre show, their 2013 production of Red,the story of artist Mark Rothko. And so I made my way to my seat, and waited to see if those massive squares of crimson could be surmounted in my mind by visions of purple.
For those unfamiliar with the source material by Alice Walker, The Colour Purple follows the life of Celie, a young African-American girl who moves through life with constant misfortune and mistreatment- including her two children being taken away at birth, and sexual, mental, and physical abuse- in the southern United States during the 1930s. The path of her life serves as an examination of the experience of black women in the U.S. at the time, and highlights the intersectional issues of racism and sexism that still exist. And while the struggle of these issues are at the core of the show, so to is a joyous hope and resilience, expressed especially through the show’s gospel musical numbers. Levity and a radiant communal feeling sit in equal position to strife and profound sorrow in the action of the show, and in no way do they seem incompatible. It’s an all too human release in this all too real representation of living through oppression.
To go into the soul stirring nuances of each actor in the production would go on for far longer than I have space. To put it simply, the cast was without falter. Tara Jackson’s journey as Celie is both earnest and cathartic, the passing years of the plot truly being felt in her growth and empowerment as a woman. From her fragile and hopeless years under the boot of Ryan Allen’s smoothly domineering Mister, to her self aware awakening with the worldly sweetness of Karen Burthwright’s Shug Avery, Jackson’s performance and rapturous singing are a phenomenal anchor of the show. Janelle Cooper and Andrew Broderick bring bursts of joyful confidence (as well as shots of bitter reality) in their performances as Sofia and Harpo respectively; but they also bring a titillating romantic and sexual energy to contrast a story rife with negative occurrences of such relations. And I would be absolutely remiss to not mention the audience favourites of the Church Ladies, Keisha T. Fraser, Masini McDermott, and Sarah Nairne, the most jubilant and popping chorus I have ever seen.
For a considerable sized stage such as Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall, the norm can often be to fill that platform up to the brim with elaborate set pieces. However, this production has little more on the stage at any given time than several massive shuttered doors, and I was truly glad for it. The doors serve their purpose wonderfully, becoming any and all structures throughout the course of their story, and their openings, closings, and shifting of shutters are a simple but elegant framework for the energy of the actors to build up the world before us. Coupled with captivating lighting and sheets of colour peeking through from the backdrop, the design really showed how effectively a world can be conveyed through bodies in space when simple accents are done so effectively.
I certainly have no place of authority to talk about what it means for this production to be mounted in Halifax. I’m a young white man, and have not had to contend with anything like the hardships of this beautifully honest story, nor have my family or ancestors. But I can say for a fact that I am exceptionally proud that this production has been given such a large spotlight in this city, and that I hope all theatres across Canada direct more energy towards mounting plays by, about, and for people of colour. It is a form that all too often finds itself white washed, and it is through choosing to present these works that the theatre community can find itself both diversified and strengthened. My heartfelt thanks and congratulations to director Kimberley Rampersad and all involved. While The Colour Purple may not have completely knocked Red off for my favourite Neptune production (though it is a very close tie), this much is true: it is one of the most important productions to have ever graced that stage.