During a church service, 14-year-old Celie goes into labor for the second time in her short life. After the birth, her father gives away the baby, and a few years later he marries Celie off to an abusive man who won't let her communicate with her sister Nettie. Despite suffering constant injustice and violence, Celie clings to hope in the musical The Color Purple at Anthony Bean Community Theater.
Adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the show is set in the early 1900s and centers on the lives of African-American women in a small community in rural Georgia. In an early scene, the adult Celie (Asia Nelson) sings to God about her seemingly hopeless situation. Celie is constantly beaten down — called ugly and useless by her husband Mister (Damien A. Moses). Nelson nails every emotional mark, and her voice is powerful and clear. Celie eventually meets the talk of the town, Shug Avery (Tomeka L. Williams), who also is Mister's mistress. Though seemingly at odds, the women strike up a loving relationship. Williams imbues Shug with a mix of sultriness and compassion. Shug is supposed to be the center of attention, and it's hard to look away from Williams when she's onstage.
The Color Purple had a substantial run on Broadway, and the songs — written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — allow for great insight into the characters' psyches. Directed by Anthony Bean, the work deals with intense themes, including rape and violence, and the songs provide transitions between disparate emotions. From joy to desperation, the characters are united through their experiences and voices.
Choreographer Giselle Nakhid, who also plays Nettie, crafted elaborate numbers, most notably for a Sunday church service and a dance by Mister's fieldworkers. During these routines, ensemble members dance, flip and sing. These numbers offer reminders that life can simultaneously contain pain and hope.
Celie submits to her husband, but not every woman in the show takes the same approach. Sofia (Jade Hillery) is brash and dominant, even when she marries Mister's son Harpo (DC Paul). In one of the show's most dynamic songs, which is both playful and serious, Sofia urges Celie to say "Hell No!" to the fearsome and brutal Mister. Hillery's comedic timing and emotional range help her deliver one of the play's memorable performances.
The show ultimately explores the bonds of friendship and the quest for redemption. The final scene incorporates the entire cast and is stirring in its honesty and catharsis. Strong direction and a talented cast make this production of The Color Purple exciting and special, combining a powerful message with moving songs and impressive choreography.