With 'heart behind it', a new musical production of 'The Color Purple' goes onstage in Springfield
It's believed to be the largest production featuring a Black cast in Springfield history: Beginning February 10, Mosaic Arts Collective and Springfield Contemporary Theatre are staging a musical version of “The Color Purple."
The ground-breaking show is based on the Alice Walker novel and the Warner Brothers motion picture.
It opens tonight — Friday, February 10 — and runs through February 26 at the Fox Theatre in downtown Springfield. The production’s junior director, Adora Snead, and lead actor, Sadé Shine, who plays Celie, visited “Arts News” to talk about it.
It can be fascinating — and surprising — to see which books, movies, or TV shows have inspired stage musicals.
Snead says, “In the world of musical theater it always fascinates me: What does become a musical? You know, everything from ‘SpongeBob’ to ‘Back to the Future.’ These are all musicals, and I think there's a really good spot for each of these types of shows to have their place in the musical theatre land.”
Of course, “The Color Purple” is an entirely different kind of story, Snead admits.
“A lot of what's happening recently in terms of becoming musicals have been the nostalgic, silly, goofy, funny shows, cartoons. And although there is a lot of heart in that, I think that shows like ‘The Color Purple’ that highlight, really, the most underrepresented person in media — the Black woman — and has this heart behind it, a story of redemption and freedom and love and strength, needs to have its place. It needs to be highlighted and amplified even more.”
Shine, who plays the lead role of Celie, adds, “And when you think about it in terms of when this this story was dated, for the African American community, music was a really big part of our social fabric and our social growth and our communication just in general. So to be able to take a story with this kind of content and be able to put that soulful music behind it, it kind of gives a place for not only the story to be told as a musical, but the soul music to be shared in a musical. And it's got the gospel and it's got the jazz, ragtime, the influences of blues. It's also a timeline of music for a culture, and it captures an era all at the same time. So it's wonderful.”
"The Color Purple" could be told in a variety of different times or eras, Snead says. The SCT production focuses on approximately 1920 into the early 1950s, so about three decades. The production team, including scenic designer Rick Dines and senior director Nki Calloway, have tried to incorporate much of that Harlem Renaissance feel into the visual presentation of the show.
“It's a really cool thing that the production team has done with everything from our costumes to even the actual choreography used in the show. Everything has been taken exactly straight from the Harlem Renaissance and through the progression of time. And so it's been a really, really cool journey to get to see, you know, what the creativity behind it was, but then also what the source material was so that we can really get in touch with that.”
Shine says she feels that “in ways, it’s been a history lesson.” And no doubt it has been not only educational, but challenging, for all the cast members.
Snead says, “It's a show that requires what we call ‘dramaturgy,’ the study of the source material, the time period and of your character. And it's been a really, really cool and humbling experience to work with this large of a cast and to see us all take on this period. In addition, she says “this is a really hard musical. It's not an easy ‘sing.’ It's not an easy thing for the orchestra to play. And the roles are emotionally really challenging for everyone.”
Shine portrays a teenager forced into an abusive marriage who we then follow for several decades of her life, developing friendships and developing as a person.
“To be honest,” she says, “playing this role has been emotionally challenging, and has exposed me to some feelings that I might not otherwise have explored, as far as being that Black woman hearing these things that are so negative. Although it's a script, just knowing that this story is real for so many in that this is the experience of the Black woman in that time period, it's very humbling. And the silver lining is that it really is truly a story of redemption in the end. And that is really what makes the entire thing work. It's what makes the story worth telling.”
Snead was overwhelmed the first time she saw the freshly-built sets on the Fox Theatre stage.
“Oh my gosh, it's amazing," she says. "I remember the first time we got into the Fox and we saw the set, and it wasn't even painted yet! But I got chills. It was so, so beautiful. The set is made up of a wooden architecture. That's all I will say. Stunning — even the way that the pieces of wood are built and the way that the light illuminates it. And then the costuming. And (choreographer) Amanda (Snead) has done an incredible job spending hours and hours of research on the Harlem Renaissance and pulling moves directly from that to highlight the story.”
“All I can say is, I know that this is under the umbrella of community theatre, but the work that Nki and Amanda and the rest of the team has dedicated to this, and even Adora, she's our junior director and she's amazing. And just watching her handle everything from blocking decisions to choreography to vocal rehearsals and warm ups, I mean, this thing has been really treated as if it were a Hollywood production in my eyes. And that's the kind of quality of effort that everyone has given.”
Mosaic Arts Collective, with which Springfield Contemporary Theatre has collaborated on this “Color Purple” production, is a nonprofit founded by Nki Calloway, Amanda Snead and Keegan Winfield.
Adora Snead defines their mission as being “devoted to providing education and equitable access to arts education for marginalized communities."
Specifically, they're looking for kids. They have a production of ‘Moana Junior’ coming up in April, and they have a partnership with Springfield Little Theatre as well, to provide education access to children.
But it's also about diversifying the local arts, and about giving marginalized peoples an equal space on the stage to people who may not be marginalized.
Snead says, "In the summer, we did a production of ‘Once on This Island’ in collaboration with Small Umbrella Theatre, and now ‘The Color Purple’ with Springfield Contemporary Theatre, and then again in April it will be 'Moana Junior' at Springfield Little Theatre.”
She calls these collaborative partnerships “a really healing process for me, growing up in this area as a theatre person, to see so many children and adults on the stage that I never got to see when I was growing up. And I'm just so grateful and so excited to get to be a part of that organization and to continue creating a more equitable space in this area.”
Speaking of “journeys,” I asked Shine to describe the journey she has taken in portraying Celie from teenager to middle-aged adult in the first half of the 20th century.
She says, “I'm going to admit it was challenging at first, but under the direction of Nki and Amanda, I was able to find where I felt like I needed to take this character in terms of again — and I have to go back to it — just being a Black woman, I think often we experience feeling like an adult as a teenager in many ways. You know, those lines are almost blurred in reality for many, especially in underprivileged communities. So I personally wanted to show that even as a child, Celie really had the strength of a woman… and she kind of had to. And I do believe that is what made her be able to get through what she was experiencing and come out still victorious in the end. Again, it's a very difficult concept to wrap your head around this young girl experiencing all the abuse, all the neglect, and still somehow trying to live what we would call a ‘normal’ life” — or, at any rate, what a ‘normal’ life would have been for a Black person during that period.
“So finding those moments where I wanted to be lighthearted, but I'm oppressed or depressed, it just really caused me to have to grow as an actress, dig into my character, and just kind of get outside of myself to figure out how to put those multiple emotions into one scene or one line, and still have it translate. And the show opens tonight, so we'll see how I did!”
(Snead told Shine while we were on the air that it was a “joy” to watch her take on the role, process it and grow: “It’s been awesome to see.”)
Performances of “The Color Purple” at the Fox Theatre, 157 Park Central Square, are scheduled through February 26: Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m.
Tickets range from $12 to $35, except for Thursdays, which are traditionally “Pay What You Can” nights at Springfield Contemporary Theatre. There will also be two post-curtain discussions with members of the cast and creative team following the Thursday, February 16 and Sunday, February 19 performances.
Snead adds, “Another benefit of seeing our production is in the lobby.”
Mosaic Arts Collective is about more than just the performing arts, she says: “It’s about all of the arts and celebrating the diversity and the beauty within every element.”
Mosaic co-founder Keegan Winfield will present a visual-art display celebrating the work of numerous local Black artists.
For more information or to order tickets, call Springfield Contemporary Theatre at 417-831-8001 or visit springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.