Civic Theatre Presents: ‘The Color Purple’
The Tarkington // Oct. 8–Oct. 23
This musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (and the popular 1985 Steven Spielberg film) spotlights Celie, a downtrodden young woman whose personal awakening over the course of 40 years forms the arc of this epic story.
With a joyous score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, African music and blues, “The Color Purple” is a story of hope, a testament to the healing power of love and a celebration of life. It premiered at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, and opened in November 2005 on Broadway, where it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score. The London off-West End production moved to Broadway in 2015, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Purchase your tickets at thecenterpresents.org.
I sat down with Civic Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Michael Lasley to discuss the upcoming production of “The Color Purple.” We dove deep into his thoughts about the return to live shows and his motives for bringing this dramatically brilliant production to Civic’s audiences.
Janelle Morrison: When we last spoke [in 2020], the stage light was on but the theater was empty and there was an eerie vibe throughout the Center for the Performing Arts campus. Now that we’re back here—in person—and rehearsals are underway, how is that impacting the company and the staff’s mental state?
Michael Lasley: I think it’s slowing improving. It’s been kind of hard to get underneath the weight of the last 18 months. [COVID-19] is still this looming specter because we don’t know what tomorrow, next week or the next six months will bring to us. There is this trepidation because we spent so much of our time in those 18 months planning things we had to pivot, change or cancel.
JM: You have spoken about silver linings and moving forward. What are your thoughts on moving Civic forward rather than trying to take it back to its prepandemic existence?
Lasley: I do think that we’re all still sort of struggling and want to get back to where we were. I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen. Not that things won’t restore and we won’t be back in a great place, I just think that maybe it’s a mistake to think we’re going to go back when we need to go forward and find what works after this. Not to try to erase it like it never happened.
I also think we all appreciate what we’re doing even more, and I think we’re beginning to heal. On the backside of this, maybe this also exposes things on a new level. I don’t think the division in this country is new. I think it was hidden for a long time and now there is a light being shown on it in a stark way.
JM: As the executive artistic director, how do you perceive your role in this renaissance of the arts and in bringing equity and inclusion into community theater?
Lasley: I don’t look at what I do as trying to change people’s lives, but it provides an opportunity for it. What we do provides an opportunity for the audience to look in a mirror and see someone else’s experiences. The Civic has never been a company that does a lot of challenging material. It has this perceived and cultivated image of a good, wholesome family place, but if people want something new and interesting and want fresh material on the stage, then they will have to learn to deal with some profanity, homosexuality, diversity and inclusion that may not be in their comfort zone.
It doesn’t cost you anything to be open to someone else’s way of life or thinking, and that goes both ways. Otherwise, we are not really doing our jobs and are not really using the arts to our best advantage.
JM: Prior to this cast of “The Color Purple,” when was the last time Civic ever featured an all-black cast in one of its productions?
Lasley: The first time I saw a full-length show at the Civic, it was an all-black version of “Guys and Dolls.” I thought it was the best thing I’d seen in my whole life. It was just amazing. I think I was around 17 years old. We’ve done some predominantly black-casted shows, but that show in 1988 was the last time Civic did a show with a 100% black cast until now.
This is a big deal to me. I’ve been working hard towards getting a more diverse look to our casts since our first production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It’s taken over 20 years for me to get to this point in terms of my tenure and having an artistic voice here. The struggle has been getting people to come and audition and want to be in the show.
JM: Why has that been such a challenge?
Lasley: If they don’t see themselves on stage, then they’re never going to audition and they’re never going to come back to see the next show. We need to have representation in every show so that people begin to see that this is a place they can come and see their experiences represented on stage and be a part of it if they choose. We’re not just telling some people’s stories—we’re telling everybody’s stories.
JM: What can the audiences expect to see and experience with Civic’s presentation of “The Color Purple”?
Lasley: This is one of the biggest leaps we have taken in a long time. It is a Pulitzer-winning novel, and the movie is lovely. This production is more brutal than the movie. In a lot of ways, people are going to see representations of black people that they have not seen—certainly not on this stage. It was not a pretty time period to be a person of color, but it’s an honest depiction of that time. We’re trying to tell one woman’s story—Celie—who was so abused and robbed of her own humanity and how she finds the deity within herself. It is a passion project and we [the Civic] are making progress. And having as much diversity as possible is going to be the goal going forward.