Angela Robinson has been in four Broadway shows and many other high-profile productions, but The Color Purple is the first one she has been in 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. A lot of them are African-Americans, and a lot of them are from African-American churches.''
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, depending on the demographics of the market where the show is playing, but African-Americans remain an important part of the audience.
"We've done a lot of mailings to African-American churches in the area,'' says Holly Brown, marketing director of Ruth Eckerd Hall. "We expect 30 percent of our revenue is going to come in from groups, largely churches buying blocks of tickets.''
To the cast of The Color Purple, 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.
"This seems to be a show that people come to in groups and as a family, and it kind of lends itself to Thanksgiving,'' Brown says. "We were concerned when it was booked, but we've been pleased with the results. It's always worrisome anytime you do a big show like this around a big holiday like Thanksgiving, but I think it's worked to our benefit.''
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The Color Purple has a religious quality that is rare for a Broadway musical, opening in church on Sunday and ending with the company singing "Amen.'' Celie, the protagonist played by Kenita R. Miller, writes letters to God for guidance through her suffering, mainly at the hands of men. The score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) is highlighted by toe-tapping gospel tunes.
"I can't think of one,'' says director Gary Griffin, when asked if there is another hit musical with as much spiritual fervor as The Color Purple. "Our show really talks about a redefinition of faith. Celie's journey goes from a notion of God being an external force to God being an internal force. What Celie has to redefine for herself is that God is not external and affecting her from out there, but that God is inside her and everyone else, that the power of God is internal.''
For Griffin, the key number in the show is Celie's soliloquy I'm Here, when she expresses for the first time that she loves herself: "I believe I have inside of me everything that I need to live a bountiful life.''
Yet for all its religiosity, The Color Purple is also pretty daring in its portrayal of the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug.
"It is daring, but while we do have a lesbian experience, it's also a very intimate friendship,'' Robinson says of her character and Celie. "We really love each other. Everywhere I go, I see the advertising: 'The Color Purple, the musical about love.' And it is about love. These two women truly fall in love with one another. Now Shug has issues, so she can't stay there very long. But they both see the beauty in each other. I think it's a beautiful love story.''
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When I saw The Color Purple in New York shortly after it opened, I found much to like in the performance, but the book of the musical seemed overly faithful to the novel. I didn't think playwright Marsha Norman overcame the intrinsic problem of having to compress into a two-hour musical Walker's epic narrative, which encompasses everything from the hardscrabble existence of toiling in the Georgia fields to missionary work in Africa to Celie's ultimate triumph as a designer of women's pants. The reviews were less than stellar for the Broadway production, but they've been better on the road.
"I think time helps every show, and I think that is what has happened with The Color Purple,'' says Griffin, a Chicagoan who has directed the musical in all its incarnations, from the Atlanta tryout to Broadway to the tour. "Sometimes in the New York production, there was a rush to get to the next moment. I think we do a better job of living inside the piece on the tour. It's been simplified to make the moments do what they do, but with less effort.''
Many of the tour cast members were also in the Broadway company, including Robinson and Miller; Felicia P. Fields, who plays Sofia; church ladies Kimberly Ann Harris and Virginia Ann Woodruff; and Doug Eskew, who plays a preacher.
"We've built a family of actors to do the show,'' Griffin says. "One of the things about casting it that I love is that it is not about a kind of slick performer. It is great to see unlikely choices who may not have done anything else, and this is their show. I'm not sure what other shows they would do — though they're all wickedly talented — but this play just serves their abilities really well. It's not a cookie-cutter show where you can just throw anyone in there. It takes a raw, human heart, and the ability to access that, to connect with the material.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.