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Pittsburgh CLO Digs into the Dark and Gritty, Light and Hopeful of ‘The Color Purple’

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By SHARON EBERSON

The Color Purple is a lot of things to a lot of people: a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker; two Oscar-nominated films (11 for the Spielberg version, and one for the movie musical, a win for Danielle Brooks); and an Oprah-backed stage musical that earned two of Broadway’s leading ladies Tony Awards, for the same role – LaChanze and Cynthia Erivo as Celie, the inspiring protagonist who beats the odds stacked a mile-high against her. 

For Pittsburgh CLO, The Color Purple represents a first. It continues its summer of variety in entertainment and venues with the 78-year-old company’s first production of the show, opening at the Benedum Center on Tuesday, June 25.

In recent years, PCLO has created new productions of shows such as Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet, and will reimagine Young Frankenstein for the Greer Cabaret later this summer.

First-time PCLO director Christopher D. Betts has directed the show before – a best-of-Raleigh production for North Carolina Theatre. However, working with the executive producer Mark Fleischer and the PCLO team, including scenic designer Britton Mauk and costume designer Claudia Brownlee, it was decided to start from scratch.

“By that I mean the design and costumes,” Betts said. “In that respect, this is a virtual premiere.”

An alum of programs at NYU Tisch, where he is a professor, and Yale, Betts has been working toward being involved in The Color Purple since he was a teen. He readily says that life wasn’t easy growing up queer in the South Side of Chicago, the son of a teenage mom. But living with his mother and grandmother, he also had the support of resilient women as his inspiration.

Perhaps that is why, from an early age, he was fascinated by the original cast album of The Color Purple.

“I would listen to the overture over and over again,” Betts said. “This show is so important in my life. I was an actor at the time, and I knew it was going to be a big part of my life – my grandmother remembers me saying that, and I never said that about another show.”

He wound up seeing the touring production in Chicago  several times, and Broadway’s John Doyle-directed revival, five times. He has so far avoided the 2023 movie musical, while he puts his own stamp on the stage show.

The production for PCLO will differ slightly from the North Carolina production, having to do with the move from “the South to the East,” Betts said, “tailoring it to the community in which it is viewed.”

With Pittsburgh audiences, the director said, he didn’t feel the need to shy from showing intimate scenes between the leading female-identifying characters – Celie (Kayla Davion) and Shug (Tamyra Gray, star of PCLO’s Sister Act). From the N.C. production comes the show’s Mister (Akron Lanier Watson), a character who could be seen as cruelty personified, until he gets a chance at redemption. Pittsburgh’s Jason Shavers ages up as Ol’ Mister.

“The intimacy is real, not stylized, and that is a big part of who these characters are,” Betts said. “Just [Saturday], we discussed making a change, so the violence will be a little more rough, a little more gritty.”

He continued, “Even the color scheme will be a little darker. I don’t believe in leaving an audience hopeless, but also, I don’t believe in holding an audience by the hand. They are up to the challenge. It’s dark when it’s dark, but it will shine very bright when it’s light.”

That brings us back to those resilient women in The Color Purple, set in early 1900s rural Georgia. Even withIn their own communities, Black women were subjugated to the will of fathers, husbands, clergy … The other looming danger came from encounters in the world of white men and women, always fraught with peril. 

The women of The Color Purple reflect the inner strength and resolve it took to follow a path toward self-determination. Celie’s path is excruciating at times – molested as a child, children and her beloved sister taken from her, made a wife to a violent man … the list of offenses against her is long, redemption is hard earned.

Lessons of The Color Purple, said Betts, include, “Forgiveness is one of the most powerful of human traits and hatred is a failure of imagination,” adding that it’s hope that can get you from wherever you happen to be now, to tomorrow.

Celie’s journey leads to one of Broadway’s most inspiring anthems of empowerment, I’m Here, by the songwriting team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

Pittsburgh CLO Summer Lineup of Stars includes Beth Malone, Charles Esten and More

Betts, who was speaking early Saturday morning by phone, would be getting back to work soon. He had a unique take on the oh-so short PCLO process of creating a new show – he likes it. 

He once mounted a Dreamgirls production in a week. Here in Pittsburgh, Friday was hump day, with four days of rehearsal on either side.

When there is no time to do anything but the task at hand, it gets done. To inspire The Color Purple team, he has this piece of advice:

“I tell the cast to treat the process as if they are creating a memory, and to commit to making it a positive memory.” 

TEENIE HARRIS LOBBY DISPLAY

During the run of The Color Purple at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh CLO is partnering with Carnegie Museum of Art to present a lobby display of photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris.

The preeminent photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, Harris masterfully captured the essence of Pittsburgh’s African-American community from 1935 to 1975. The exhibit was inspired by Harris’ “evocative images of hope, love and celebration, [that] beautifully mirror the powerful themes found within the musical production.”

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of The Color Purple is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, June 25-30, 2024. Tickets: or call 412-456-6666. PROMO CODE FOR $10 DISCOUNT: CLOPURPLE (see info above). For information on PCLO’s Removing Barriers, visit .