St. Mark’s Players raise the rafters of Capitol Hill’s capacious landmark church with their stunning new production of the musical The Color Purple. Under the direction of Rikki Howie, this affecting show undulates from the most profound depths of human emotion to its epic heights with a splendid cast that’s as supple of voice as they are fleet on their feet.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, the musical traces the long and tortuous journey of Celie (Sheron LaSha’), a poor Black woman living in the American South, from her toxic teenage years in the early 1900s to the grace she achieved decades later. Along the way, we meet a vivid cast of characters who for better and for worse shape Celie’s challenging life, including her beloved sister, Nettie (Angela Whittaker), her dictatorial mate, Mister (Otega Okurume), the seductive songstress Shug Avery (Bri Nobles), the totemic Sofia (Jody Hestick) and her slapstick-y husband, Harpo (Ira F. Coats Jr.). A wonderful Greek chorus, masquerading as Church Ladies, clucks its approbation or disapproval all along the way.
A rich and poignant score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) ranges from the charming childhood play song “Huckleberry Pie” that the young Celie performs with Nettie to the defiant “Hell No,” Sofia’s anthem of strength and defiance. Nearly every genre we associate with African American music, from play songs and work songs to hymns, jazz, gospel, and blues, is referenced in the sparkling score. The ensemble is uniformly splendid. They are types, but never stereotypes. They imbue every song with rich and nuanced meaning.
St. Mark’s Church can be a tough space to navigate sonically. There’s every opportunity to swallow and muddle ensemble songs that rise into its vast space. Hats off to Sound Designer and Engineer Jon Grover for his fine balancing work, and to the excellent orchestra under the musical direction of Rachel Bradley.
Perhaps because of those challenging acoustics, however, it’s the duets and solos that land with the most impact. “What About Love?,” Celie and Shug’s meltingly lovely paean to tenderness and trust, closes the first act with a rush of emotion. Okurume’s striking rendition of “Mister’s Song” forces us to reconcile Mister’s brutishness with his unspeakable upbringing and the racism heaped upon him all his life.
Renee L.’s costume designs are a symphony of color that communicates unerringly. In the near absence of physical scenery, the sturdy suits and extravagant hats of the church ladies, the jewel-toned robes of Nettie’s African students, and Celie’s playful collection of wide-legged pants are the visual cues that move the action steadily forward. They also pair perfectly with Rosslyn Burrs’ inspired choreography. In “Big Dog,” a song and dance exposé of Mister’s cruelty, khaki-clad farm hands deliver an athletic, ground-hugging work song attesting to their boss’ unending wrath. Shug Avery’s “Push Da Button” combines show-stopping vocals and slinky dresses with delicious dance moves in Harpo’s richly imagined juke joint.
Underlying the drama and the dazzle of The Color Purple are profound questions of faith and the possibility of personal transformation. Despite their church-going traditions, Celie and her compatriots wonder about the existence of a God who permits such misery in this life. Where can we find and embrace a higher power? How can we metamorphosize into our best selves, despite external barriers? St. Mark’s Church, with its soaring nave and peaceful gardens, is purpose-built for contemplation, and with this production, a soulful dose of exaltation.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
The Color Purple plays through May 27, 2023, presented by St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 301 A Street SE, Washington DC. Tickets ($25, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups of 10+) may be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Masks are required in the theater. St. Mark’s Players policy is available here.
The Color Purple
Book by Marsha Norman
Music & Lyrics: Brenda Russel, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray
Directed by Rikki Howie
Produced by Susan Ades, Amber Champ & Ivan Davila
Music Direction by Rachel Bradley
Choreographed by Rosslyn Burrs