THE COLOR PURPLE now at Shea’s 710 Theatre is a musical feast. Hallelujah!

THE BASICS:  THE COLOR PURPLE, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray; book by Marsha Norman, based on the 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker, directed by Sarah Norat Phillips, music direction by Karen Saxon, choreographed by Naila Ansari, starring Gabriella McKinley as Celie, Anika Pace as Nettie, George Brown as Mister, Brian Brown as Harpo, Curtis Lovell as Sophia, Jetaun Louie as Shug Avery, and a dozen others. Co-presented by Second Generation Theatre (SGT), Ujima Company, and Shea’s 710. 9/14 – 10/1, Thu – Fri 7:30, Sat 8:00, Sun 4:00 at Shea’s 710 Main Theatre (Main Street corner Tupper). (716) 847-1410

RUNTIME: 2-1/2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  If you have read the book, great, but if you haven’t, the plot follows the 1985 Spielberg movie based on the same 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with “Celie” forced by her father “Pa” to give up the two children that she had by him and then forced to leave her beloved sister “Nettie” behind and go marry “Mister,” a mean man who beats her.  When back home Pa tries to rape Nettie she runs to Celie only to have Mister attempt to also rape her.  Nettie runs off leaving Celie to a life of abject drudgery until the arrival of the beautiful singer “Shug Avery,” who needs some TLC which Celie can provide.  The two are very much attracted to each other.  Shug is a very sympathetic character and she knows her own mind.

Meanwhile, Mister’s son “Harpo” has married “Sophia” and when he does what she asks, their relationship is bliss, but when he starts behaving like his dad, Sophia doesn’t put up with his nonsense.  Sophia’s temper later lands her in jail where abuse robs her of her spirit.  Things are definitely out of joint until, inspired by Shug Avery’s sense of self-worth, Celie stands up to and confronts Mister, even putting a curse on him.  This act has a profound effect on everyone, all for the better, and whatever the opposite of a curse is, Celie’s generous spirit changes her life and the lives of everyone she knows, and that’s a large community.  As the publicity states: “It’s a story of hope, a testament to the healing power of love, and a celebration of life.”


This musical adaptation has a score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, African music, and blues performed by an all-black cast and pit, as it should be, and it cooks, as only church-based musicians can do.  Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, you name ‘em… the greats all started out singing gospel.  As a matter of fact the show starts with a church service.  And in this production, three of the four (and there are only four making that joyful sound!) pit musicians have at least two decades each of gospel performance: Organist Jonathan Boyd (at Elim Christian Fellowship Church); Bassist Anthony “Tone” Cummings (Tabernacle of Praise Church); Keyboard player Michelle Thomas (Calvary Baptist Church) and making his professional debut, Isaiah Gethers is on drums.  

Audiences may be reminded of last season’s BIPOC sensation ONCE ON THIS ISLAND on the big Shea’s 710 stage where Karen Saxon (Music Minister at First Shiloh Baptist Church) was also the music director and Naila Ansari was also the choreographer.  The 710 stage can be a little daunting for some, but not for SGT set designer Chris Cavanagh who used huge projections on the back wall to fill the space and then created a clever set construction that provided a number of spots for scenes to play out and even had a rotating platform for quick changes.  This show has over three dozen musical numbers, each of which gets its own scene, so it’s fast-paced.

The central character, Celie, is played by Gabriella McKinley, whom I first saw in THE COLOR PURPLE at Buffalo State University where she played Shug Avery.  At the time I was wowed, and I’ve been wowed every time I’ve seen her, most recently that was as Toni Stone over at Ujima and Company.  And she’s surrounded by a wonderful cast, including George L. Brown as Mister.  Brown has been in regional productions and national tours, and that deep experience shows.  The highly engaging pair of Harpo (Brian Brown) and Sophia (Curtis Lovell) was made even more entertaining, I think, by the fact that these two major talents work together over at Ujima and the comfort level they had with each other just charmed the audience.  Jetaun Louie makes a very convincing Shug Avery, Tuhran Gethers is a formidable Pa, Nathania Sampaio as Harpo’s sometime girlfriend Squeak, and Anika Pace plays a very sympathetic Nettie.  I got choked up when she came back into Celie’s life later in Act II.   

Gabriella McKinley as CELIE

Photo Credits: Stephen Gabris

The excellent supporting cast played a number of characters who act and sing and dance and give the feel of the community, especially the three “Church Ladies” – Latosha Jennings, Danielle N. Green, and Tammy Wilder. – who constantly comment on what’s happening.  You’ll get a full-color playbill with all the cast photos and short bios.

In the lobby after the show I ran into a knowledgeable friend who saw the Broadway Revival of THE COLOR PURPLE (with Cynthia Erivo as Celie and Jennifer Hudson as Shug) and she told me that this production was every bit as good.  I can say that it’s every bit as good as the Broadway Tours that we’ve seen lately down the block at Shea’s Performing Arts Center (3,019 seats) and at Shea’s 710 Theatre the 625 seats are certainly much more comfortable, and the feel is much more intimate.

After you go, remember that you can see many of the actors around town, often, but not exclusively at Ujima Company, Inc. at 429 Plymouth where their next production will be 12 MO’ ANGRY MEN (December 1 – 17), then HERStory: a one act series of three plays over the time period March 8 – 24, and then next May, WEDDING BAND, also directed by Sarah Norat-Phillips (May 3 – 19).  And don’t forget The Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten, where you can currently see THE ROYALE (read my review here). 


Roslyn Ruff

If you want some background on this production of THE COLOR PURPLE, Buffalo Rising’s Daniel Lendzian has a podcast conversation with representatives from Ujima, SGT, and Shea’s.  You can listen here.

And one final note: This Monday, September 18, at 5:30 at the Plaza of the Stars, in the Main Street median right in front of Shea’s 710, Buffalo-born Roslyn Ruff, star of stage and screen (both big screen as in THE HELP and small as in LAW AND ORDER) will be inducted with her own star, in a ceremony conducted by Stephen McKinley Henderson.  The public is invited.  More on that here

Lead image: Gabriella McKinley as CELIE and Anike Pace as NETTIE | Photo Credit Stephen Gabris

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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