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‘The Color Purple’ Brings Jazz, Gospel, Blues to Red Mountain Theatre

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The Color Purple, which opens Friday, February 9 and runs through Sunday, March 3 at Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre, will be highlighted with singing performances featuring notes of jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues. (Red Mountain Theatre/Mary Fehr)

By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson | The Birmingham Times

Directing The Tony award-winning stage play “The Color Purple” is an honor for the multi-talented Monet who joins an elite company of few Black women who’ve had the opportunity to direct a musical of this magnitude.

The musical, which opens Friday, February 9 and runs through Sunday, March 3 at Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre, will be highlighted with singing performances featuring notes of jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues.

Monet told The Birmingham Times she does not take lightly the opportunity to direct this critically acclaimed play.

“Directing this production means a lot to me,” said Monet, a graduate of A.R.T/Harvard. “Not only is it so wonderful to be directing ‘The Color Purple’ in the South so close to the geographical areas that it is set in and references, but also to be able to do the show for a community that really understands these (characters) in a more intimate way. These characters are based on people that would resemble their grandmothers, their great grandmothers …”

The play is based on Alice-Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of the same name, which follows the life of lead character Celie – who rises from a dramatic childhood of abuse, oppression and trauma to become a strong and vibrant woman and community figure, complete with supporting female characters including Sofia, Squeak and Shug Avery.

‘The Color Purple’ debuted to box office, big movie screen success in 1985 under the direction of famed movie producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg (known for such movie blockbusters such as ‘E.T.,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Back to the Future’).

The movie starred iconic entertainment figures Whoopi Goldberg as Celie; Oprah Winfrey as Sofia; Margaret Avery as Shug Avery; Rae Dawn Chong as Squeak; Lawrence Fishburne as Swain; and Danny Glover as Mister.

The musical opened on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre on Dec. 1, 2005 and the latest iteration theaters in 2023 starred “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino as Celie and the film isn’t a strict re-creation of the stage show, which was almost entirely sung-through.

Monet is not only working as director and choreographer for The Color Purple but she is also an actor and consultant who’s worked with distinguished playwrights, directors and organizations.

Her work spans theatre, film, commercials, music videos and live events and she’s served as a consultant for the likes of Black Thought (The Roots), John Leguizamo and she’s associate director of the highly anticipated Alicia Keys musical, Hell’s Kitchen that will be headed to Broadway spring of this year.

The diversity of work is common for those who lean toward a professional career in the arts, she said.

The Color Purple is directed by Monet, left, and features local actors Myiesha Duff and Naomi Brown. (PROVIDED)

Monet said her greatest work right now is telling this story “through the lens of this community and this cast” and “watching the actors grow and explore these characters along the way and getting to watch them all come to life on stage.”

One of those actors is Birmingham-native Myiesha Duff, who cast as Celie in the musical.

“Having a director who identifies as Black and has lived, breathed, and been a part of our culture brings a relatability and understanding that is a breath of fresh air,” said Duff, who considers Red Mountain Theatre home.

This is Duff’s third time playing this role at RMT (she also performed it in 2012 and 2019).

“I am honored to bring Celie to life again on the stage,” said Duff. “Working with this group – from my castmates, directorial team, production team – has been a joy.”

Duff, a graduate of E.B. Erwin High School’s class of 2004, describes Celie as “a simple and complex character and I get to play the many nuances that make her a beloved character.”

To prepare for this role, she “reread the book (‘The Color Purple’) and increased my gym and exercise time in efforts to increase my stamina because Celie spends the majority of the play on stage,” Duff said.

She admits that there are times, due to the emotional nature of the role, that she has had to “pull away and regroup.”

Aside from her stage performance, Duff enjoys family time with her husband of 14 years and their three children, ages 9, 6, and 4.

And in addition to being a full-time wife, mom and actress, she’s also a children’s book author, educator and administrator.

Getting Into The Swing

Local entertainer Naomi Brown was on a cruise with her husband Ron and their children when she got the call.

“They told me that I’d missed the email, so they called me and told me I had the role as a swing actor for The Color Purple,” she said.

A month later in December, she was invited to be cast as a swing actress in the upcoming stage production.

While Brown is one of the background singers in the production she is also a swing actor which carries an “incredible responsibility” in a production, she said. Swing actors study multiple roles and must be ready to step in if one of the principal actors is unable to perform.

“This is my first experience doing the swing position (in The Color Purple),” she said. “I’m covering all ensemble (on-stage performers other than the main actors) and all the (lead) singing church ladies,” she said. “That’s a total of eight women.”

Brown said there’s slightly less pressure in being part of the ensemble, but there is more heavy lifting with the lead singing roles (church ladies) she is covering as well.

“With the church ladies I have to be on point because that (role) is specific – the notes they’re hitting and the reason they’re hitting it at a certain time, because they’re telling a story and you have to be accurate,” said Brown.

And that’s not all.

“I’m breaking down staging, where they’re standing, when they’re coming in, when they’re going out, who’s standing where, why are they getting up on this part, what are the cues. There are a lot of intricate pieces to being a swing actor,” said Brown.

And even though the main roles – Celie, Shug, Sofia and Squeak – have understudies (those who will fill in if the lead actress is out), Brown says she still has to learn their roles as well to fill in for the understudy, should they need backup.

“If anyone is injured or if anything happens where they can’t be in the play, I would have to step into that role,” said Brown. “There are a lot of intricacies to being a swing.”

She is the only female swing actress. There is one other male swing actor for The Color Purple at RMT.

Brown says it is “definitely challenging” learning all the roles, but also the fact that the director of the play makes “consistent adjustments going on with different people (during rehearsal).”

Showtimes

Performances for The Color Purple will begin Friday, February 9, with the last performance on Sunday, March 3. Performances will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday and will also feature Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Community Conversations will be held following each Thursday performance where members of the cast and crew will be available to talk about the show and what it means to host the musical in this community.

For more information on the stage play and actors, or to purchase tickets, visit https://redmountaintheatre.org/color-purple-2024.