Powerhouse vocals: a review of Citadel Theatre’s The Color Purple

Powerhouse vocals: a review of Citadel Theatre’s The Color Purple

I’m adding my own voice to the chorus of unabashed praise for the Citadel’s excellent production of The Color Purple.

Truthfully, I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said by my fellow critics. The show is fantastic and you should go see it. The vocal performances are phenomenal. In the lead role of Celie, Tara Jackson is an absolute powerhouse, never once faltering or holding back. This no-holds-barred performance is in keeping with the pacing and tone of the rest of the production, which is directed by Kimberley Rampersad. She is the first black woman to direct a production of this show and, as has been noted already, that is an egregious error that the Citadel’s production thankfully rectifies.

Jackson’s vocals are matched by those of her fellow castmates, who each contribute their unique – but no less impressive – talents. I particularly enjoyed Karen Burthwright’s alluring performance as Shug, as well as the trio of gossiping church ladies (Masini McDermott, Maiko Munroe and Sarah Nairne), whose chatter carries us through the play’s more difficult revelations. An ensemble of melodious male voices complements the main narrative of powerful female vocals.

The Color Purple at the Citadel. Photo by Ian Jackson.

I won’t describe the story here – The Color Purple is famous enough that it hardly needs another plot synopsis – but I will add that I was relieved at how it handled the intensely difficult subject matter. I went into the show prepared to have my heart wrenched out of my chest and while this production certainly gives a few good tugs on the heartstrings – particularly in the finale – it wasn’t difficult to sit through. It’s not even close to the emotionally painful experience of reading the source material, Alice Walker’s 1982 novel.

Instead of dwelling on the pain, we join the characters on their journey as they rise up – and raise up each other – from the depths of poverty, violence and generational trauma. Celie’s resilience and personal fortitude are inspiring. Every time she pushes back against the odds stacked high against her, you can’t help but feel a surge of hope. “I’m beautiful; Yes, I’m beautiful; And I’m here!” she sings, and Jackson makes us feel every syllable, every punctuation mark. Her delivery of those lines was so powerful that the person sitting beside me whooped and broke into furious applause.

The Color Purple at the Citadel. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Brian Perchaluk’s set is simple, almost minimal – nothing that distracts from the extravagant vocal performances. Ming Wong’s costumes are perfect, from early 20th century chic to traditional African garb. I’m probably not the only person in the audience who wants a pair of Celie’s trademark pants for myself – high-waisted, wide-legged and richly coloured, you wouldn’t be out of place strolling down Whyte Avenue in a pair of these.

The Color Purple at the Citadel. Photo by Ian Jackson.

I scribbled hardly any notes during the opening night performance – always a sign of a very good show. Instead I sat rapt, with a half-smile on my face as the show unfolded.

As I watched, I recalled something that Jesse Lipscombe (Buster) said in our conversation on my podcast a couple weeks ago:

“Having shows like this are so special, specifically to black cast members. As an actor, in the majority of the roles that I do … I’ll be playing a role and then I’ll figure out why or how my blackness fits into said show. Because that’s kind of how life is, in general, when you’re a marginalized person. Most rooms we walk into, we’re usually the only [person of colour]. In this scenario our cast is all black and there is no need for us to answer certain questions. There’s no reason for us to pull back in certain ways. So this has been one of the most freeing experiences as an artist.”

The Color Purple is an important show for Edmonton audiences. As Jesse pointed out in our conversation, all of the performers are people of colour and that just does not happen very often on Edmonton stages. Citadel Theatre artistic director Daryl Cloran is obviously aware of his responsibilities and privileges as a white male in charge of a major Canadian theatre. He’s making a deliberate (and welcome) step towards inclusion and diversity by launching the Citadel’s new season with this production.

And what a production it is! Again, this is an excellent show. Go see it.

The Color Purple

Citadel Theatre

Until Sunday, October 13, 2019

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