It’s been 40 years since Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker released her magnum opus “The Color Purple,” and since then, the critically acclaimed novel has been adapted for the screen and the Broadway stage, winning the prestigious Tony Award for Best Revival of A Musical in 2016. Now, Walker’s story is being presented to Atlanta audiences in a new production at City Springs Theatre currently running through May 22, that harnesses the brilliance of Walker’s words, the cultural shift propelled by the film, and the unrestricted celebration of the Black and queer experience on stage.
With a soul-stirring score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, African music, and blues, “The Color Purple” tells the story of Celie (Felicia Boswell) in early 20th century Georgia as she is subjected to and ultimately triumphs despite physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of both her father and husband, Mister (Gavin Gregory). The all-Black cast and creative team are led by Kamilah Long (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), in a rare appointment as a Black woman director of a show traditionally led by white men.
“As a leader in the room, I lead with love,” Long said in a video captured by City Springs Theatre during the first day of rehearsal. “In leadership, people like to not have professionalism and love [to] be in the same space. I don’t. I believe that empathy is another word for love. Passion is another word for love. So just know that I want to set up a very safe and brave space here for folks to be able to express their ideas,” she said.
Broadway actress Felicia Boswell (“Memphis,” “Shuffle Along”), who plays the lead role of Celie, was in the room when Long established the brave collaborative space in which she would allow her actors to soar. Boswell, along with her co-star Gavin Gregory (Porgy & Bess, The Lion King), who plays Mister, are returning to the musical after previously performing their roles regionally and on tour. For Boswell, accepting the role for a second time was an easy decision.
“Sometimes you have opportunities to play roles that penetrate your soul and your spirit in such a way that it's hard to let them go. And Celie is one of those characters for me,” Boswell said.
Despite being a powerhouse singer and actress, Boswell, who starred in the role of Celie in the 2018 Portland Center Stage production and was being considered to replace Jennifer Hudson and Heather Headley in the Broadway revival, tells The Reckoning that it took convincing quite a few people that she was right for the role.
“They basically told me, ‘Nobody's going to take you seriously as Celie. You're not the right look for Celie,’” Boswell recalls, until she read for the role, then she says everything changed.
“I went into my audition for Nettie and Timothy [Douglas] read about three or four lines with me and he said, ‘I'm sorry. You are Celie. I would like you to do a cold read.’ So, I did a cold read, and I booked Celie,” she said.
Gregory’s journey with the show began as a member of the ensemble and as an understudy for the role of Harpo in the original Broadway company. He has been a part of two iterations of “The Color Purple,” including the first U.S. national tour where he also played Mister.
“It was just an incredible experience being able to be in two totally different kinds of productions. One with all the bells and whistles, which I thought was beautiful and very much needed for that kind of storytelling. And then to tell the story with just nothing but chairs was excellent too, for me, because you have nothing to hide behind,” he said.
Gregory, who identifies as bisexual, embodies the abusive character on stage famously brought to life on screen by actor Danny Glover. While it can be challenging for audiences to be forgiving of Mister, Gregory says as an actor, his job is not to judge the character.
“There is complexity and nuance to every human being. I’m a bisexual man and I’m Black. It took me a minute to even recognize that and to come out because of the stigma,” Gregory said. “You are only doing what you've been taught unless you choose a different path. It helps me humanize Mister because there is a turnaround. I just can’t brush him off as being this evil man.”
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