“The Color Purple” and “The Whipping Man”
Pride in identity brings empowerment. Heroes in strong local productions of “The Color Purple” and “The Whipping Man” arrive at that insight in very different but equally moving ways. The former finds initially victimized and submissive African-American Southerner Celie rising to respect and self-realization as she embraces her feelings for singing free spirit Shug Avery. In the latter, Simon and John—two African-American Jewish converts—experience real freedom as they celebrate a remarkable post-Civil War Passover Seder. SpeakEasy Stage Company makes Celie’s odyssey vividly soulful, while the New Repertory Theatre couches Simon and John’s newfound dignity in a richly designed area premiere.
In the 2005 Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” black spitfire Shug establishes the show’s embrace of life’s beauty. “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it,” the pivotal independent thinker reflects. Gradually, conflicted and often abused Celie notices the purple in herself as well as the world in this spirited adaptation of the 1982 (1983 Pultizer Prize) novel by out African-American author Alice Walker. Marsha Norman’s book admittedly rushes the plot developments of the second act—as Celie’s relationship with bi-sexual Shug deepens and Celie’s remarkable sister Nettie returns from a complex Africa odyssey as a missionary. Still, the rich, often-tuneful Brenda Russell, Allee Wils and Stephen Bray score—bringing together gospel, jazz, swing and blues—helps to capture the evolving 1930’s lives of the focal Georgia black residents who move from verbal and physical warring to emotional cease-fire and a stirring ultimate understanding.
Artistic director Paul Daigneault trumps the shortcomings of the Norman book with a strong ensemble cast and the vivid choreography Christian Bufford-especially in the stunning fast-paced Shug-centered number “Push Da Button.” Here and elsewhere Crystin Gilmore is an eye-catching winner as Shug, whose vitality and verve embolden Celie in confronting abusive husband Mister. Gilmore, capturing Shug’s unbridled zest for life and equally remarkable caring and love for Celie, is a standout talent that SpeakEasy will do well to bring back in future seasons. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is convincingly subdued as Shug-adoring Mister learns to respect Celie and becomes a caring man.
Lovely Hoffman as Celie may not sing as powerfully as Tony-winning LaChanze did in the moving Broadway original, but her deliveries- most notably in the character’s manifesto-like second act solo “I’m Here”—are very moving and her portrayal of the heroine’s awakening to her inner beauty and sexual needs is artfully realized. Other strong efforts include Jared Dixon’s smartly evolved Harpo-Mister’s initially weak son- who learns to reject the macho example of his father and become a truly loving husband to his strong-willed wife Sofia. Valerie Houston-another SpeakEasy find-—catches all of Sofia’s amusing but indomitable spirit in “Hell No!” and her contrasting pain—physical and emotional—after a punishing (unseen) beating by whites. Beautiful Aubin Wise captures the nobility and unflagging sisterhood of Nettie, whose letters help revive Celie’s inner life.The sprawling set tree on the Wimberly—credit premier Hub designer Jenna McFarland Lord- becomes a visually impressive character in its own right as characters embrace it or perch on it as various points in their respective life journeys.
SpeakEasy Stage’s lustrous staging of “The Color Purple” should have all area theatergoers taking notice.
The Color Purple, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through February 8. 617-933-8600 or bostonrtheatrescene.com
American Jews began their 1865 Passover observance one day after the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox. During American slavery, blacks strongly identified with the biblical bondage of Jews in Egypt, an experience which became the focus of the anthem-like gospel song “Go Down Moses.” Some African-American slaves were known to have converted to Judaism. Out playwright Matthew Lopez, a self-described “foxhole Episcopalian” with Civil War buff family members, has factored all of these points into his moving history-inspired play “The Whipping Man,” now in a luminous New Repertory Theatre area premiere that gives cause for celebration.
Set in April 1865 Virginia on the ruins of a once grand Richmond home, “The Whipping Man” focuses on three life-changing days-from the end of the Civil War through the start of Passover- and their impact on returning Confederate Jewish soldier Caleb De Leon and black Jewish convert slaves Simon and John. Caleb, seriously wounded and dejected, feels abandoned by God—so much so that anchor-like Simon has to remind him that Passover is approaching. While older slave Simon struggles to find the whereabouts of his wife and daughter, his faith remains strong and he continues to utter Jewish blessings-among them the miscellaneous one “She-hakol niheya bi-d’varo” (“That all exists with His word”). Younger John may be less secure in his beliefs as he ‘appropriates’ clothes, whiskey and other items from the (unseen) burned out and abandoned homes of the De Leon’s neighbors, but he does receive insight from mentor-like Simon.
While a vivid rain storm—credit Scott Pinkney’s nuanced lighting and Dewey Dellay’s evocative sound design- rages outside, an equally forceful torrent of tension intensifies inside the De Leon home. Janie E. Howland has imbued the ruins of her inspired scenic design with a tarnished grandeur that sets the stage for both the spiraling war on words about slavery and freedom and the unusual but especially involving Seder about to come. Although the South has surrendered, Caleb must learn to free himself from the assumption that he can order Simon and John as though they are still slaves. At the same time, Simon needs to liberate himself fully from a mindset of servitude now that he is free. Both Simon and John—especially the latter for much of the play- struggle with painful memories of the flogging carried out by the title (unseen) man hired by master’s like Caleb’s missing father.
In Lopez’s carefully worded dialogue, Simon gradually makes Caleb understand that he—and John as well—will no longer take orders. The older black convert makes it clear that he is voluntarily helping Caleb to avoid gangrene and worse as he treats his leg wound. John—who already displays the cavalier demeanor of an aimless prince with little to do—voices a clear intention to travel North to New York and a life of new opportunity (much the same as another local black freed slave). All three will eventually experience liberating moments of truth involving major revelations about the De Leons and Simon’s family.
For much of the somewhat tighter second act, the post- Civil War Seder crystallizes the momentousness of Simon and John’s own liberation from the kind of crushing servitude experienced by Jews in Egypt . Resourceful to a fault, Simon—with John’s assistance—improvises the Seder plate including hardtack in place of matzot and a brick for the mortar, symbolizing mixture charoset.
Eventually the 1865 seder night becomes different from all other nights as Caleb and Simon reveal life-changing secrets that strikingly complicate the trio’s respective futures even as they edify certain large mysteries.
New Rep guest director Benno Sato Ambush brings as much care to Caleb, Simon and John’s concerns and fortunes as he did to the tensions and dynamics of the son of the Cape Town, South Africa tea shop owner and his two
Apartheid-oppressed black servants in the recent IRNE Awards –winning (for production and direction) Gloucester Stage Company staging of the Athol Fugard gem “Master Harold and the Boys.” Premiere Hub actor Johnny Lee Davenport, majestic as the older servant in Fugard’s play, brings equal nobility to the rich central role of Simon. Capturing Simon’s evolving deep ties to the De Leons, he also demonstrates the devout older convert’s remarkable attentiveness to Judaism and the details of the Seder. His deeply resonant singing of “Go Down Moses” and a heart-wrenching outburst at a climactic moment of painful clarity will linger in theatergoers’ memories with the power of a favorite holiday observance.
Keith Mascoll effectively balances John’s contrasting light-heartedness about the items he has appropriated and his anger about the repeated indignities he encountered with the title punishment agent. Jesse Hinson catches Caleb’s change from ordering master’s son to vulnerable ,feeling man and more responsive Jewish peer. Both Mascoll and Hinson do well reaching a kind of Samuel Beckett moment between action and inaction at the close of the play.
After seeing Lopez’s sometimes busy but always absorbing play, audiences may have as many questions about actual Southern Jews in the era of slavery and about the lives of black converted slaves as the characters have about each other. Simon well understands that such questions are essential to both Judaism and the pursuit of full dignity. As “The Whipping Man” suggests, examining one’s own identity and one’s relationships with others is the key. In this light, the New Rep staging proves as richly satisfying as the best Seders.
The Whipping Man, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through February 15. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org
The hopes and dreams of everyday people compete with hovering despair at an off-track betting parlor through a nine- race day in the new James McLindon play “Handicapping”-earnestly but unsatisfyingly staged by Fresh Ink Theatre at the Factory Theatre. A strapping 22-year old called Ant (short for Anthony)-played with convincing cockiness by Keanu Reeves-resembling Kyle Blanchette is trying to win enough money at an upstate New York race track (that calls to mind Saratoga) to own a pizza parlor in a town that has lost its main employer and convince (unseen) Tricia with their son known as Little Ant. During the play-spanning racing day, Ant’s fortunes take a roller coaster ride of possibilities and disappointments, but McLindon never makes his odyssey truly compelling. There are good moments of camaraderie and tension between Ant and his wheelchair-bound best friend Vin (Vincent), played with engaging quirkiness by Alex Roy.
Ultimately, though, “Handicapping” lacks the kind of theatrical power achieved by a much stronger atmospheric new work, namely Steve Barkhimer’s New York fish market-centered “ Windowmen, ”which recently premiere at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. ”Handicapping” proves a well-intentioned also-ran.
Handicapping, Fresh Ink Theatre, Factory Theatre, Boston, through February 8. Freshinktheatre.com
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