Featuring a panel moderated by Michaela Angela Davis, stage stars Cynthia Erivo (Celie), Isaiah Johnson (Mister), writer Brenda Russell and producer Scott Sanders gathered to discuss the impact of the show and why this 2016 production is more timely than ever.
The conversation confronted issues of violence against women, Black Lives Matter, the generational terrorism that emerged from a history of slavery — a culture that created a man like the character of Mister who beats his wife because his father beat him because he was beaten by his slave owner — the shame that some African Americans feel about their African heritage, and diversity in commercial theatre. Davis created a safe space for panelists and audience members to explore these themes from The Color Purple.
The intensity and emotional gravity of the show was addressed more than once during the evening, specifically how the actors, as people, handle what their characters go through each night onstage. "I allow that pain to come in, and I'm allowed to release that onstage," said Johnson of how he finds the show to be healing. "When I say 'Amen' at the end of the show [as Mister], Isaiah moves forward."
Erivo added that she believes it’s a healing experience for the audience. "I feel like I take people in watching the show. I take in whatever it is they need to get rid of," she said.
"And that's why you feel the way that you do [in the audience]," Johnson interjected. Erivo has received raves for her performance as Celie and the emotional depth she reaches within the character. "I don't know how to mark," Erivo said, recalling an early rehearsal when her musical director told her to take it easy. "I don't know how to mark my feelings. I was unafraid of the feelings that come with it." She disappears into Alice Walker's story. "When Celie is onstage, Cynthia is nowhere to be found," said Erivo. "When I come to the very end of the show and say 'A-men,' that's [finally] Cynthia saying 'A-men."
The night also included some insights into how Sanders first brought the show to Broadway in 2005, revealing Walker's initial hesitance to the project and how Oprah Winfrey got involved.
As audiences of all colors flock to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, we must remember the importance of telling all stories, and that if you build it they will come.
Watch the full panel in the video player below: