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Review: Sparkling Performances Propel Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘The Color Purple’

By SHARON EBERSON

The rare sights of a standing ovation before the bows and audience members wiping away tears speak volumes about Pittsburgh CLO’s new production of The Color Purple, powered by the Pulitzer Prize-winning story and galvanizing performances of a powerhouse cast.

The talented troupe is led by Kayla Davion as Celie, crushing a vocally, physically and emotionally demanding role. As portrayed on the page, stage and screen, Celie is a character who over the course of years overcomes horrific circumstances that at every step threaten to rob her of faith, love, even self. 

Brady D. Patsy with Kayla Davion as Celie and Danyel Fulton as Nettie (standing), in Pittsburgh CLO’s The Color Purple, which opened Tuesday at the Benedum Center. (Image: KgTunney Photography)

It was Davion’s stirring delivery of Celie’s moment of transcendence, the empowering anthem I Am Here, that brought the Benedum Center audience to its feet on opening night.

Uplifting Celie while the men in her life conspire to trample her spirit are Tamyra Gray (PCLO’s Sister Act) as the irresistible chanteuse Shug and Maiesha McQueen as irrepressible Sofia, defining a “down but never out” attitude that proves contagious to a heartbroken girl.

The production, led by director Christopher D. Betts, does not shy from the violence and traumas visited on teenage Celie – incest, beatings, hard labor and the wrenching banishment of her babies and beloved sister, Nettie (Danyel Fulton). 

The men in Celie’s orbit fail her for most of her life, but they also prove a source of redemption and forgiveness.

Akron Lanier Watson plays the barbaric Mister, Color Purple author Alice Walker’s expression of tightly wound, dissatisfied manhood in a rural Black community, circa early 1900s Georgia. 

Hee covets what he can’t have (Nettie), despairs over his lost love (Shug) and mistreats his teenage wife, Celie, in every way imaginable.

Gerald Caesar lends a boyish charm to Harpo, Mister’s son (in the musical, many children are mentioned but rarely seen). Harpo’s relationships with two strong women – Sofia and the ambitious Squeak, the latter, played by Pittsburgh’s Saige Smith, bringing delightful charm to the role.

Other local actors in multiple roles and the ensemble include Jason Shavers, Brady D. Patsy, Melessie Clark and Savannah Lee Birdsong … it’s always a good bet to peruse the program and find names to watch, such as ensemble member Tripp Taylor, a rising junior at Carnegie Mellon, or Pittsburgh CAPA’s Saniya Lavelle as Young Nettie and fourth-grader Cassia Romare Hawkins as Young Celie.

Memorable turns and a few of the show’s smiles belong to Birdsong, Jennifer Lee Warren and Keirsten Nicole Hodgens as women who fan themselves against the Georgia heat and fan the flames of rumors and gossip as well.

Celie and chanteuse Shug (Kayla Davion and Tamyra Gray) bond in
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of The Color Purple. (Image: KgTunney Photography)

Much has been made previously about love-starved Celie’s relationship with Shug, who is free and easy with her body but not so much her love. A relatively chaste kiss in this production may be meant to represent their feelings, but it is how they treat each other with kindness and compassion – and the ability to hurt, too – that really seals the deal.

A complex Color Purple couple: Gerald Caesar as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia. (Image: KgTunney Photography)

The tuneful What About Love? makes me think of a time when such a song would be a radio hit for, say, Peabo Bryson and a pop diva. In context, sung by two women – Davion’s Celie and Gray’s Shug – it is a statement of having found a love worth holding onto, even as one of them is always pulling away.  

The Tony Award-nominated book by Marsha Norman, among the 10-times nominated original Broadway production, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, captures a time in the Jim Crow South when no Black woman was safe from both the men in their own communities and any encounter with white people outside their segregated borders. 

The Color Purple can be brutal, no doubt, adding to the uplift and hope of its resolution – one many of us know is coming, having experienced the many incarnations of the story, but rendering it no less powerful and impactful. 

Director Betts keeps the two-hours-plus show moving apace, rarely allowing a breath between numbers.

This new PCLO production, designed by Britton Mark, borrows ever-so slightly from director John Doyle’s 2015 stripped-down staging on Broadway, but here with nature peeking out from behind gritty, uneven strips of wood. Multiple platforms arranged at center stage represent everything from rural houses to an Africa village, and chairs serve as everything from potential weapons to a bathtub.

Clashing color combinations of backdrop and costumes by Claudia Brownlee sometimes obscure the action, but that is a minor detail. Shug’s sparkly gold performance dress and Sofia’s introduction in bright yellow certainly were standouts to match the moments.

I prefer the ideal of minimalism, where performance and storytelling are front and center. PCLO’s The Color Purple accomplishes that emphasis movingly and emphatically.

The character of Celie, a modern-day Job, teaches us that inner strength and resilience, bolstered by faith and a female alliance of shared experience, can allow the body to endure and the mind to conquer whatever hardships are thrown in her path. Davion’s performance as Celie belts that message from the heart to the rafters, and brought a crowd to its feet on opening night.

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, through June 30, 2024. Tickets: BEFORE choosing show date and time, enter Promo Code: CLOPURPLE, and receive $10 off each ticket purchased. (Discount will show atend of purchase path.) or call 412-456-6666. For information on PCLO’s Removing Barriers, visit .

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