To June 2
Neptune Theatre, 1593 Argyle Street
On a sharp and sunny Tuesday morning, the lobby of Neptune Theatre is quiet. Behind the doors of Fountain Hall, backed by a six-piece band, a choir swells. After three weeks of rehearsal, it's the first day in the theatre itself for The Color Purple, Neptune's 2018-19 season closer. Following tradition, it's a musical, and as in the most recent seasons, it's a movie-turned-Broadway musical hit like Shrek, Legally Blonde, Once and last year's Mamma Mia, the highest-grossing production in the company's 56 years.
But this one is different. The Color Purple began, of course, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker in 1982; then the 1985 film by Steven Spielberg, netting Academy Award nominations for Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (in her acting debut); a Winfrey-produced musical opened on Broadway in 2005 and was revived in 2015, winning three Tony Awards between the shows including for both Celies, LaChanze and Cynthia Eviro. It's a story spanning decades, beginning in 1909, of poverty, racism, domestic abuse, unrequited love, queerness and Black identity—this is not Elle Woods, it's not ogres and it's definitely not ABBA.
Neptune is the first regional company to produce the play in Canada, and has hired one of the most exciting theatre artists in the country to execute it: Kimberley Rampersad, the choreographer, actor and director out of Winnipeg. She's between summers directing at the Shaw Festival, choreographed the recent Matilda at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton—where she'll direct Purple again as its season opener this fall—and is currently at the helm of this two-month run.
On the building's second floor, a door opens from the theatre and Rampersad strides into view, hoop earrings swinging, her dancer's limbs moving with purpose—there's no spare minute here.
Rampersad calls herself the "ultimate facilitator" of the show—she immediately rejects the suggested "supreme leader"—and shares credit freely and generously.
"There's a director of the text that's on the stage, there's a director of the music that's on the page and then as a choreographer there's a language that isn't on the page but is being created to support the text that's on the page and the music that's on the page. So it's a triumvirate," she says. "So the director feels like a figurehead, and everything ends up having to go through that lens eventually, but in the best way it's quite a circular way of leading."
The Color Purple begins in 1909, with the barely teenaged Celie (Tara Jackson) giving birth to her second child by her own father (Jeremiah Sparks), "already ruined two times," as the musical's opening number goes. At 18 she is married off to the abusive Mister (Ryan Allen), who keeps her from her most important relationship, her sister Nettie (Samantha Walkes). Then Shug Avery (Karen Burthwright), a singer and casual sexual acquaintance of Mister's, shows up and gives Celie hope for the first time.
Shug also gives Celie a queer situationship for the ages—intimate elements of a relationship, but not a proper or fulfilling one, especially unlikely between two queer Black women in the early 1900s.
It's a story of the intricacies of relationships between women, persevering despite violent men, societal expectations and restrictions of race and class.
Rampersad's mother gave her the book as a girl; Burthwright, who saw both Broadway productions (and has appeared on Broadway herself, in the 2012 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar), was initially kept from it by hers.
"I came across it and it was weird for me because my mom was telling me not to read a book. That didn't make sense," says Burthwright, leaning into a banquette next to Jackson on a rehearsal break. "She had to explain to me, 'When you're a little girl there's things that you're gonna read that you don't understand yet.' That it's not time for you to tackle and/or have it explained to you.And that for me was The Color Purple. One hundred percent it was the violence against women—how to you explain to a little girl that someone could hit her? Where do you even start?"
Jackson—that's her on all the ads you're seeing around town—saw Spielberg's movie when she was 10. "I remember crying at the end, but I don't remember why I was crying," she says. "I think I made the connection, but every time I watch it or I read it now, there are more layers, and more of myself and more of my experiences in there. It's so special. Every time we rehearse it or do a scene there's a new discovery—it's really impactful."
"I keep saying in rehearsals that Alice Walker wrote a feminist manifesto, way before her time," says Burthwright. "And a Black feminist manifesto, for that time, in rural Georgia? South of the Mason-Dixon line, in that time, in Black folkspeak?"
"It's unheard of," says Jackson.
"Things change but then things sometimes cycle through again," says Rampersad. "We have different approaches, it manifests itself in different ways, but in terms of class, race, sex, sexuality, gender identification—those are all things that we go through in this play that happened 100 years ago, and that we are still going through now.
"There's something great about framing something in the period that it's in because we don't necessarily as audience members feel indicted from jump—we can see a point of view and we frame it in the distance and then hopefully as it goes on we might realize how it spins into present time."
Jackson, who is from Calgary, and Burthwright, from Toronto, are excited to be working not just with the renowned Rampersad but also with The Color Purple's woman-heavy creative team.
"The language that she sees in the language, between words, between moments. How she runs the room. How she has to run the room. It's very different—her presence, that female energy at the helm," says Burthwright of the director. "We have three female stage managers, we have a female director, we have a female Chrysalis participant assisting, we have a female Chrysalis participant assisting the musical director, a female set and costume designer, wig designer." (The Chrysalis Project is Neptune's new mentorship program for emerging artists.) "It's a sense of pride for me as well to look at my creative team, to look beyond the table and see all these women there."
"And it just feels different," adds Jackson. "There's that inherent female connection, it's unspoken but it's there. It's much appreciated."
How often have you worked for a Black woman director in your careers?
Burthwright: How often?
Jackson: Never. Never. First time.
Burthwright: I'm going to go ahead and say la première temps. This is it. Writer, yes. Black male yes. Female never.
Jackson: This is the first Black woman I've been directed by.
"Like anything else, I think certain people should do certain things cause they're the best at it. I've always believed that," says Burthwright. "Any level and point in my career, I just want the best people in the room with me. And we got the best this time, and she happens to be Black and female. And it's wonderful for this particular show."
"It makes sense. This is a Black woman's story," says Jackson. "It's Celie's journey, it's told from her perspective. To have a Black woman direct just makes sense."
Rampersad is aware her position here is notable—in an industry that, like many, is slowly waking up to the truth that there are not just stories outside the white, mostly male experience but also artists not of that experience to tell them—and that the stakes are high. But don't think things are suddenly easy for her.
"My womanness and Blackness will never serve me in getting more work. Not in my lifetime. And that's straight-up truth," she says. "I know I am getting some wonderful opportunities. And I have worked very hard for them. I know that I represent many women, women of colour, people who are marginalized, who work as hard if not harder than me—I happen to be a person who is getting opportunities right now. But the fact is, is that if I am not successful in this, I will not be given chances the way other people would be given chances to succeed or fail again. I don't have that luxury."
Like their director—their ultimate facilitator—her actors have chosen to focus on what is offered by the work itself.
"We—and by 'we' I mean the Black community, Black actors—we don't get the opportunity to stretch all these muscles that we're stretching right now in this show," says Jackson. "We don't get the big roles that require us to go to those places that we train to go to. For me that's where the pressure's coming from, on myself—this has to be right and perfect in my eyes."
"Love, betrayal, finding yourself, coming into your own, being broken up with, being abused, having your family literally ripped apart from you, being in an unrequited relationship where there's no equality or respect, sexism, homophobia—it's all these things," says Burthwright. "You think about the work, what's on the page? And you have to imbue every moment and choice and opportunity with that. And be barefoot, grounded and planted to the earth, literally."
"It's a full community event. So you'll see those 18 actors that are up there and our conductor and our six musicians down in the pit—for each person there's probably three people behind the scenes that they represent," says Rampersad. "It's the sum of the parts. That's kind of my mantra when we make theatre—it's the sum of the parts."
Tara Thorne is The Coast's arts editor.