A new traveling production of “The Color Purple,” based on the Alice Walker Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was set to play at The Ordway from March 31-April 5 (the show has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak). This new conception of Walker’s classic tale is a focused, pared-down musical consisting of a soul-stirring soundtrack based on jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues.
Called one of the “greatest revivals ever” by New York Magazine, the production won a 2016 Tony for Best Musical Revival.
At the center of “The Color Purple,” of course, is the long-suffering character Celie who eventually, with the help of other women in her life, finds her voice. Another important storyline is that of Harpo and Sophia, an example of epic Black love where two people find each other, appear to lose each other when the forces of toxic patriarchy intrude, and venture to find each other again.
Playing Harpo is New Jersey native Brandon A. Wright, and Sophia is played by Chedra Arielle, who was born in Seattle but raised in Savannah, Georgia. Asked why she believes the “The Color Purple” continues to resonate with audiences after all these years, Arielle replied, “It’s about love and triumph. No matter how old you are, or what time or space we are in, everybody can relate to love and triumphs and hardship and separation and struggle, but still being able to have this beautiful sign of love and forgiveness and strength.”
Arielle also pointed to the prominence of the female characters in Walkers’ story. “There is also the idea of sisterhood and of women coming together to do good,” she said.
For his part, Wright noted that the story has a timeless quality because “the story takes place over 40 years, and so at whatever point you’re at, you’ll find something to identify with on the stage.”
Harpo and Sophia’s story is particularly bittersweet as they both, to varying degrees, are extremely likable and sympathetic characters pushed by society to say and do things that end up being counterproductive. Wright points to “the time they spend apart” as the saddest aspect of their relationship. “It’s so clear that in all their chaos, they loved each other. It’s such a beautiful moment when they’re reunited,” he stated.
For both actors, there is a lot that’s positive to be taken from Harpo and Sophia’s story, as well. “There is hope for that storybook, fairytale-type of love and if we’re lucky enough to find it, then fight for it,” asserted Wright.
“I mean, look at Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and went back and risked her life for love. The first time she went back it was for her husband. Love makes us endure, hold on and believe, and that’s very powerful.”
Arielle noted that Sophia teaches Harpo an important lesson: “The best part for me is the fact that Sophia shows ‘No, I’m not like everyone else. I’m not like any other woman you can just get advice from your dad and then beat me. I’m going to stand on my own two feet. I’m independent, and I’m going to show you the right way to do things.’”
“The Color Purple” has been at the center of controversy ever since the release of the novel in 1982. The movie version reignited heated disputes about stereotypical depictions of the characters, especially the males. Wright said he was certainly aware of the issue, but still embraced the character of Harpo because “the story isn’t necessarily far from the reality of what the male/female relationship would have been in this particular setting. Nina Simone said, ‘It’s an artists’ duty to reflect the times.’ It’s our duty to be a mirror for society.”
The Sophia character also threatens to fall into the stereotype of the emasculating Black woman, though she is often simply described as strong. “Black women have always been strong,” Arielle stated. “There hasn’t been a choice to be weak. I was raised around strong women. For me, I just embraced the character.
“The writer wrote it that way for a reason, and it’s not up to me to judge the material. It’s for me to bring the words off the page to life.”
Please note that due to the outbreak of COVID-19, “The Color Purple” at The Ordway has been postponed indefinitely. For more info, visit ordway.org/event/color-purple.