Celie lives a tragic life. She was forced to give up her children. She was basically sold to a tyrant as a wife. She believes her sister to be dead and her faith lies in tatters. But with a new friendship, she slowly begins to regain herself and to live life to the fullest. Watch her remarkable story in The Color Purple which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
This is unquestionably one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever seen. Marsha Norman deals with some dark and ugly themes in this script. Racism, physical and mental abuse, lust, abandonment, and loss of faith are just some of the themes explored and that’s just in the first act. But themes of love, family, hope, perseverance, and redemption are also visited in the show’s second act. This gives the show an incredible multifaceted nature. Throw in a score that spans genres from Gospel to blues to jazz to swing to African along with a cast that was more than up to the challenge and you have one awe inspiring night of theatre.
Kathy Tyree’s direction is truly to be lauded. Guiding a performer through an emotionally charged scene is always a difficult and nuanced task. But to guide multiple performers through numerous emotionally charged scenes requires the hand of a master and Tyree has such a hand. Not only does she lead her performers through the almost uncountable nuances and beat changes of this tale, but she also stages it immaculately using a surprisingly simple Jim Othuse set of steps, slatted beams which depict African tribal masks on the reverse, and a large screen of scribbles that flash colors to suit the emotions of the scenes.
The ensemble does a masterful job of always being in the moment to add the spark of life to group scenes, but you’ll also be treated to some stellar performances from Doriette Jordan who is full of sass and fire as one of the Church Ladies. Anthony Holmes provides some levity as the sweet, but hapless Harpo. Brandi Mercedes Smith is awesome as the tough as nails and brutally honest Sofia who gets one of the show’s most tragic scenes due to her refusal to take garbage from anyone. Brittany Thompson provides some real sweetness and loving support as Celie’s younger sister, Nettie.
TammyRa’s performance as Celie is so heartfelt and moving that it stirs the dead. I admit I was blown away by the power and nuance of her interpretation and TammyRa’ is going to be swarmed in award nominations and you can take that to the bank.
TammyRa’ is so meek and pitiable at the show’s start and she makes you feel Celie’s pain and brokenness with each haunted look and reaction. But her growing happiness when she begins to claim her life makes your heart soar. And what an angelic alto! TammyRa’ belts out a tune like few others can and it communicates the subtlest of emotions. Some of my favorite numbers were her tortured “Dear God”, her magnificent “What About Love?”, and her confident “I’m Here”.
Jus. B is an utterly worthless piece of humanity as Mister. This is a cruel, cruel man who does not have one redemptive value in him. He practically salivates over Nettie, but takes Celie as a “wife” just for a free cow and treats her like a virtual slave as he demands she cook, clean, and satisfy his urges. Jus. B has an incredible gift of acting with his eyes and you can feel the heat of his anger radiating from them while he smokes a pipe with such intensity that I feared he would snap its stem in two. He is just as potent on the singing side when that powerful baritone hits you with “Mister Song”.
Dara Hogan has the energy of a dozen people and a magnetic presence as Shug Avery. She’s the bad girl with a heart of gold and has loyalty to spare with her dedication to her friendship with Celie. Hogan is truly a triple threat who can sing, dance, and act with numbers such as the heavenly “The Color Purple”, the humorous “In Miss Celie’s Pants”, and especially the showstopping “Push Da Button”.
Jim Boggess and his orchestra are superlative as they play the multiple genres of the score. Jim Othuse’s lights really add to the production with the depressing darks of Act I and the hopeful colors and brightness of Act II. Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco’s sounds seamlessly blend in and enhance the production with my favorite being the singing birds at a picnic. LaTryce Anderson and DJ Tyree provide some smooth choreography with my favorite dancing sequences being “Big Dog” and “Push Da Button”. Lindsey Pape’s costumes show the passage of time from 1910-1940 with the gingham dress of Celie giving way to the flapper dress of Shug Avery to the bright and colorful pants that Celie creates. I was also highly impressed with the tribal masks painted by Janet Morr.
This is a show that is going to grip you by the throat in ways you never thought possible as indicated by the running commentary I heard from various audience members in Act II. Due to its heavy themes and mild language, I’d suggest some parental discretion, but this is an artistic triumph for Kathy Tyree, her cast, and the Omaha Community Playhouse. Buy a ticket and learn why The Color Purple is the color of passion.
The Color Purple runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 27. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 402-553-0800, visiting www.omahaplayhouse.com, or at the box office. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Robertson Photography