Angela Robinson has been in four Broadway shows, but The Color Purple is the first one that has a consistently high percentage of African-Americans in the audience.
"It is probably the highlight of my life to do this show and see that," says Robinson, who plays blues singer Shug Avery in the tour that comes to Clearwater this week. "I've done other all-black shows, and this is the first time in my career I've been able to look out in the audience and see a representation of the same culture of the people who are on the stage."
The Color Purple's success with African-American theatergoers is not entirely surprising, because of its all-black cast and famous source material. Alice Walker's novel about the trials and tribulations of a black woman in rural Georgia has been one of the most influential books of the past 25 years, and Steven Spielberg made it into a popular movie in 1985.
The musical has another thing going for it: Oprah Winfrey, who has put her name above the title and her marketing clout behind the show. Winfrey, who starred in the movie, was enlisted to invest in the musical by its lead producer, Scott Sanders.
"I think Oprah gave us national awareness," says Sanders, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "She generated interest among people who have not gone to Broadway shows before."
On Broadway, where The Color Purple ran more than two years before closing in 2008, the audiences were as much as 50 percent black, according to Sanders. The percentage has varied on the road, but African-Americans remain a key part of the audience.
To the cast of The Color Purple — many of whom were also in the Broadway company — it makes a difference when there is a high proportion of blacks in the audience.
"We do this show for everyone, because it does speak to everyone, but I tell you, nobody understands some of the jokes like African-American people," says Robinson, a Jacksonville native who graduated from Florida A&M University. "When it's mainly an African-American audience, you know it, because they make their presence known. It feeds us onstage."
From a business standpoint, the grass-roots community appeal of The Color Purple may turn out to be its saving grace during the Thanksgiving week engagement.
"It's always worrisome any time you do a big show like this around a big holiday like Thanksgiving," Brown says, "but I think it's worked to our benefit."