There probably isn't a friendlier theatre for audiences in town than Karamu. Guests are greeted by the gracious VivIan Wilson, the theatre's public relations director. If you get to the theatre early, there's always someone inviting you to sit down at their table and talk. After the production, the cast lines up to thank you for coming.
Karamu is the oldest African American-oriented theatre in the country. They pick shows that fit their audiences. This is not to say the theatre is black-centered, it's not. Audiences are almost always integrated, as are the casts.
THE COLOR PURPLE, which is now being produced at their Jelliffe Theatre, was written by Alice Walker. Walker was the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for the novel, THE COLOR PURPLE. Her marriage to white and Jewish Melvyn Leventhal was the first recorded racially integrated union in Mississippi. She coined the word womanist, which she defines as "a woman who loves other women sexually or non-sexually and men sexually and non-sexually. A woman is to feminist as lavender is to purple."
Obviously, her being African-American and the concept of being a womanist are at the core of THE COLOR PURPLE.
The Broadway production of THE COLOR PURPLE earned 11 Tony Award nominations and ran for 910 performances. It is presently touring through the United States, making a Cleveland stop in March of 2008.
It's rural Georgia in the 1930s. Two young girls are singing the clapping game, Huckleberry Pie. It quickly becomes apparent that though the girls appear happy, Celie, the 14 year-old, is pregnant. She is the victim of her father's incest for the second time. Pa gives away both children, leaving Celie not only childless but unable to bare future babies. Celie, as she does throughout the play, turns to God for a sign, for something that will let her know what is happening to her. Eventually she is given to Mister, a man in need of someone to take care of his children, work as his "woman" and use her for sexual pleasure. Nettie, Celie's sister comes to visit, sharing that their father is now attempting to have sex with her. When Nettie attempts to stay with Celie, Mister tries to rape her and she runs away.
Celie eventually finds self-pride and independence, Nettie befriends Celie's children, who were taken in by a missionary family, and the horror and frustrations turn to reunited love.
The music and dancing are well integrated into the story, as are racism and sexism. Though there are no classics in the score, the over twenty-five songs, effectively push the story along.
The title of the play is an important symbol. Celie is going through life with little ability to notice the beauty of life. The color purple, the color of bruises on her body from the continued rapes and beatings, transforms into the color of beauty, as the purple flowers of the field bloom as Celie heals and grows into a womanist.
The Karamu production, under the direction of Terrence Spivey is uneven. The acting is generally excellent. The lovely Coleen Longshaw is mesmerizing as Celie. She has a fine singing voice, interprets songs well, and makes Celie go from a beat down girl to an inspired woman. She is matched by Mikhaela LaShawn as Shug, Celie's friend and guide, and Corlesia Smith as Celie's sister, Nettie. The gossiping Church Ladies (Layne Farr, Joyce Linzy and Andrenée Fant Priest) are a hoot. ChrisTina Johnson is properly overbearing as Celie's friend, Sophia.
On the male side, Dyrell Barnett creates in Harpo an endearing soft-hearted, hen-pecked man. Michael May is so abusive that if the audience hadn't been so polite, they would have booed him, as well as the equally obnoxious Kenny Charles, Celie's Pa.
On the other hand, the pacing is too languid, there are too many pauses for awkward set changes, the sound system squeals and pops and is too loud, and though it plays well, the band often drowns out the singers.
The choreography by Angelique Richelle Lipford was creative and enthusiastic, but sometimes undisciplined.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE COLOR PURPLE, which is an appropriate selection for Karamu's mission, gets a good, but somewhat flawed production, filled with some wonderful singing and acting.
THE COLOR PURPLE continues through October 28 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking. For ticket information, call 216-795-7077.