I am currently in rehearsal for a rarely-produced production of Purlie, the musical version of Purlie Victorious, written 50 years ago by esteemed actor Ossie Davis. Purlie addresses the economic slavery still imposed by white property owners upon free Blacks in the South.
Also set in Georgia, and covering several decades prior to the setting for Purlie, is The Color Purple, being presented at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City. Where Purlie deals with fighting their economic enslavement, The Color Purple deals with Black families fighting the tradition of emotional enslavement that they imposed on themselves.
I wanted to see this production for several reasons. Of course, one was to gain additional insight into the mindset of Southern Blacks of the period, neither having grown up Black nor Southern. I was also familiar with the excellent artistic credentials of the director, choreographer, music director and several cast members, having worked with them previously in 2012's Ragtime the Musical at Hillbarn. I was expecting a tight, moving evening and I wasn't disappointed.
I had seen the film only once when it first came out, so there were a lot of details to the story I didn't remember. Therefore, I was able to allow these actors to tell me the story. I was enthralled as I discovered the relationships between these characters. I learned many things I didn't remember.
The role of Mr. __________ (Anthone D. Jackson) was intriguing. We know at the outset that we are supposed to hate him. Jackson played him with such a fine hand that hate was a feeling manifested by Celie but not necessarily the audience. We learn that he is who he is because of the male traditions to which his roots were exposed. The characters of Pa (Andy Serrano) and Ol' Mister (Max Williams) helped us to see this. He is emotionally brutal but he is honest and unapologetic until his world collapses and we witness his transition into the honorable human being buried inside.
Celie (Leslie Ivy) took us on a strange journey. Initially the performance seemed flat until we realized that she was merely resigned to her lot in life. We know this because we could see her growth and transition as she discovers there is love in her life and that there is an inner strength that she can call on. The discoveries she makes in Act 2 are phenomenal. During every performance of Ragtime, Leslie (as Sarah) would make me cry just before I had to return to the stage as Grandfather. She did it to me again at the end of this performance.
To support the story-telling, outstanding performances were also brought to the characters of Shug (Dawn L. Troupe), Sophia (Jihan Sabir), Nettie (Kiara Rose Johnson & Jacqueline Dennis) & Sqeak (Damaris Davito). And an absolute joy to behold was the Greek Chorus of Church Ladies played by Ladidi Garba, Debra Harvey & Pam Drummer-Williams.
This show represents Director Lee Foster and Music Director Greg Sudmeier's swan song as they retire from Bay Area. After years as Executive Producing Director of Hillbarn Theatre, Ragtime was her directorial debut and she continues to show off her deft understanding of how relationships can be developed on stage. The music was beautifully developed, though the accompaniment was recorded. There were many times, though, when the "orchestra" was fighting against the singers with balance inconsistencies. Many times the background was overpowering. Other times, when there was a combination of choral work and solo lines, the harmonies were sharp but the solo lines got lost.
Also adding to the story was the varied and beautiful choreography envisioned by veteran Jayne Zaban. From the gospel praise dancing to the jazz halls to the plains of Africa, all participants showed pure joy of whatever they were presenting.
Hillbarn Theatre, Foster City
May 8 - June 1, 2014
Stay tuned to more info on Purlie, being presented July 3-20 at The Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts in downtown Oakland.