More than a decade ago, the Alliance Theatre landed the world premiere of the musical based on Alice Walker’s treasured 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Soon after, in 2005, “The Color Purple” arrived on Broadway, telling the story of Celie, the teenager in rural 1930s Georgia, forced to endure an abusive father and an arranged marriage to a cruel local farmer.
The show, featuring a book by Marsha Norman and gospel, jazz, ragtime and blues music by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis, earned 11 Tony Award nominations that year and won one. A revival of the musical returned to Broadway in late 2015 and closed this January — but not before nabbing another pair of Tonys, including best revival of a musical.
The director charged with steering the production, Tony winner (“Sweeney Todd”) John Doyle, recently sent his creation on its first national tour since he joined Team Color Purple in London in 2013. The Atlanta run, which plays the Fox Theatre through Sunday, is only the third stop on a tour that will run deep into 2018.
Doyle recently chatted about his history with “The Color Purple,” as well as what theatergoers can expect from the road show.
Though Doyle was born and raised in Scotland, he attended graduate school at the University of Georgia:
“I went there a long time ago, in 1973-74 in the master’s program. I had a scholarship that took me there. I finished theater school in the U.K. and was looking for someplace to work and live. I didn’t even know where Athens, Ga., WAS. As you can imagine, for a white Scots boy going to Athens in 1973, it was a very different world. The scholarship didn’t pay for my transportation, so I got a cheap ticket to JFK (airport in New York), and took the Greyhound bus to Athens and I was the only white person on the bus. I never met a person of color; where I came from, there just weren’t any. My connection with Georgia was a big part of why I did the show. I was questioning and dubious if a British white man of a certain age should even do this piece, and then I looked at Alice’s source material and I thought about my time in Georgia and thought that maybe I can bring something that was a personal experience to it.”
On what experiences he brought to the show:
“I kept saying to the cast, bear in mind these are all poor people that in those days would be sitting on porches in impoverished communities. These were people who would never have the money to see a musical, so they wouldn’t understand the tropes of the typical American musical, so they can’t be walking around like they would be in a musical and they can’t even dance like they’re in a musical. We had to think of it more like a play, in a sense.
“The other thing I keep saying is it’s HOT in Georgia and these people don’t have air conditioning and they sit still on those porches for long periods of time and don’t move much. I thought maybe my own memory of being in Georgia — I remember people being incredibly kind and generous and courteous — and I felt that we could bring that (to the show).”
On the modest stage production:
“It looks like a great big wooden Georgia porch, in Putnam County, Ga. There are lots of chairs on stage, and they‘re used to make different spaces. I think it’s still visual; I don’t think people will think they’re not seeing anything. It’s still quite epic and quite visual. People are still getting that Broadway production. I think certainly in your city, it will go very well.”
On cast members Adrianna Hicks (“Celie”), Carla R. Stewart (“Shug Avery”) and Carrie Compere (“Sofia”) being familiar with the roles since they came from the Broadway production:
“They were understudies and they’ve all played it. Carrie took over for Danielle (Brooks, who played Sofia) for eight weeks (on Broadway), so she had a solid run and Adrianna would fill in if Cynthia (Erivo) was off. It’s made the adjustment easier and a couple of the ensemble were in the original production as well. But it’s also gratifying to see the girls growing into the parts and making them their own.”