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South Bend Civic Theatre brings ‘The Color Purple’ to the stage

Elaine Yu | Monday, September 9, 2013

While the South Bend Civic Theatre’s musical rendition of “The Color Purple”might lack the star power of Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg seen in the film version, the opening night performance lacks little else.

Through energetic and soulful singing and a nice sprinkle of laugh-out-loud moments this meaningful tale of overcoming racism and sexism in early 1900s America comes to life on stage.

“The Color Purple”is the story of Celie’s (Makeda Grier) – a poor African American girl – triumph over abusive male figures and oppressive whites on her path to discovery and love in 1930s Georgia. Many may also know the story from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the 1985 Academy Award-nominated movie, or the 2006 Tony-nominated Broadway musical, all by the same name.

Celie is a poor, young, and uneducated girl who is repeatedly raped and twice impregnated by her father, Pa (David Smith). However, Pa does not allow Celie to raise her children but rather removes them from the picture.

Celie saves her younger, prettier sister, Nettie (Zoe Morgan), from an undesired marriage to Mister (Ben Little) when her father forces her to into the loveless, abusive marriage. However, through new friends such as Sofia (Laurisa LeSure) and Shug (Jasmine Dennie), Celie begins to build confidence and eventually leaves her former life behind.

Nettie, on the other hand, takes the opportunity that Celie gave her to excel in her studies and eventually travels to Africa with a missionary family to do ministry work. Years later, she discovers that the children of the missionary family are actually the children that Celie was forced to give up.

While Celie starts a successful business, Nettie and the missionary family return to America. After 30 years of separation, Celie and Nettie are able to embrace each other again and Celie reunites with her children. (I did not tear up. Something got in my eye.)

Grier’s portrayal of Celie’s transition from an awkward, submissive girl into a grown, independent woman was believable. Her musical performance was great overall and had me wondering how her lungs could hold that much air. Plus, I could not help but say, “You go girl!” when she called out her abusive husband. However, I did wish she would make eye contact with the general audience more frequently rather than look above us. (A few times my imagination got the best of me and I thought there was something in the air.)

To be honest, there were one or two rough patches in a few songs and production. For example, the introduction music on an empty stage was a little too long which made for an awkward moment when I wondered if someone pressed play too early. However, the moments of amazing vocal runs and tear-jerking scenes made up for those minor situations.

The Mainstage Auditorium, which seats 209, made for a great setup to get a close up of the performers’ expressions but it also meant that the stage was rather small. The versatile stage had to be transformed into multiple locations spanning states and nations but it was done relatively well as a result of careful positioning and lighting.

In terms of hair and costume, I did spot a pair of cap toe flats and a slightly too fancy hairdo. But, the majority of the hair and costumes were true to the period and the character’s circumstances. My personal favorite was the colorful, sequin-covered African dresses and headdresses. Also, since some performers played multiple characters, the different costumes were much appreciated in telling which character the performer was portraying at the moment.

The musical runs for approximately two-and-a-half hours including a 15-minute intermission. Check for show times through September 15th in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium at the South Bend Civic Theatre. Tickets are $21.