Signature Theatre stages Alice Walker’s Pulitzer masterpiece ‘The Color Purple’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Color Purple' at Signature Theatre (Part 1)

Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” became a 1985 Steven Spielberg movie that earned 11 Academy Award nominations, before being adapted as a 2005 Broadway musical that earned 11 Tony Award nominations as well.

On Tuesday, Signature Theatre kicks off its adaptation in Virginia through Oct. 9.

“If you haven’t read it, shame on you — I believe it’s mandatory reading,” Actress Frenchie Davis told WTOP. “It’s really a story about sisterhood, friendship, survival, feminism during a time when we really didn’t have a word for it, but that’s what was happening, and a community of people who are just now beginning to understand what freedom means.”

Set in the early 1900s in Georgia, the story follows Celie, who is torn from her beloved sister as a teenager and forced into an abusive marriage with Mister. Over the next 40 years, Celie endures repression and heartbreak, while discovering hope in her friends.

“These are the first generation of free people,” Davis said. “These are the first generation of Black people to be born not slaves in this country. It’s a very interesting commentary on how, in the quest of Black liberation, how the patriarchy has endured. … We have grandmothers whose mothers couldn’t even own property or open a bank account.”

Davis plays the role of Sofia alongside Danielle Summons as Shug Avery, Kaiyla Gross as Nettie, Solomon Parker III as Harpo, Torrey Linder as Mister and Nova Y. Payton as Celie, a role that earned Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar nomination and won LaChanze a Tony Award.

They’re all directed by the great Timothy Douglas from a book by Marsha Norman and a songbook of music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

Davis calls the title song “beautiful.” She also loves “Miss Celie’s Pants” as “Celie has found the strength and courage through her friendship with Sug and Sofia to leave this abusive marriage. Now she’s started her own business making clothes for people at a time when they’re just starting to grasp women wearing pants,” Davis said.

While the women survive trauma and come out stronger, she also appreciates the redemption of male characters like Mister. “The self-reckoning he has at the end of the story is beautiful. … You’ve got to go through the dark to fully appreciate the light. It ain’t rainbows and sunshine all the time. The rainbows only happen after rain,” Davis said.

That notion ties into the title, which reminds us to appreciate the little things.

“There’s a line where Sug Avery says to Celie, ‘I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.’ … Even in the darkest, most painful experiences, something beautiful can evolve from that. You heal from the dark and painful experiences by remembering to notice the beauty in small things like the color purple.”

Signature will host Discussion Nights on Sept. 13 and 21 and Pride Night on Sept. 16.

“Please come out and witness this magical show,” Davis said. “It’s been a spiritual experience putting this story together. … It’s such a powerful story. You’re going to cry, you’re going to laugh, you’re going to clap, you will leave feeling empowered and proud.”

Find ticket information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Color Purple' at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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