A Time to Celebrate The Color Purple — and 30 Years

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La Toya London and the cast of "The Color Purple"

Celebration Theatre has many reasons to celebrate these days. As preparations are underway for its 30th anniversary season this fall, the company received 16 Ovation Award nominations, including best season, tying with Musical Theatre West as the second-most-nominated theatrical company for 2011/2012, after Center Theatre Group.

Thirteen of Celebration’s nominations went to the cast and creative team of the company’s rendition of the musical The Color Purple — more nominations than were received by any other production. They include best production of a musical and nods for lighting and costume design, music direction, choreography, direction, featured actor, three featured actresses, lead actor, lead actress and acting ensemble.

Cesili Williams and La Toya London in "The Color Purple"

In keeping with the company’s moniker, the atmosphere inside the Celebration family is festive, although perhaps still a bit surprised. “I had a strong feeling our production would be nominated, but 13 nods?”, exclaims featured actress nominee Constance Jewell Lopez (“Miss Sophia”). “I am so overjoyed to be a part of something so special. The Color Purple was the best theater experience of my life. It was one of the best times in my life.”

Founded in 1982 by gay rights advocate Chuck Rowland, Celebration has become something of an LA institution, producing works about the gay and lesbian community. The cornerstones of Celebration’s mission have always been acceptance and artistic integrity. It has become a genuine pillar of the gay community.

These principles and the history drew Celebration’s current leadership, including current artistic director John Michael Beck and former artistic directors Michael A. Shepperd and Michael Matthews, through its doors. “I had heard of Celebration Theatre when I was writing a paper on LGBT theatre while attending grad school at San Francisco State University,” explains Beck, who joined the company in 2008 and became artistic director in 2011. “When I moved to LA, I wanted to continue my work with LGBT theater and eventually found my way to Celebration.”

Michael Shepperd

For Shepperd, who is currently nominated for his leading actor performance as “Mister” in The Color Purple, his ties with Celebration have been a kinship from the start. “I had some knowledge of the theater, but it was a conversation that I had with [Michael] Matthews at the intermission of a show that sold me. He and I were both from Chicago and knew all the same people but had never met. He then asked me out of the blue if I would star in his first show as artistic director. I said “˜You have never seen me act, how can you just cast me?’ He said, “˜We are from the same tribe, I already know who you are.’  And we have been fast friends and colleagues ever since.”

At a company that prides itself on producing works that push the boundaries of gay and lesbian theater, reactions of shock and awe are nothing new for Celebration audiences and critics. But when the proposal to do the Broadway spectacle musical The Color Purple cropped up, even the administration’s eyebrows were raised.

“This is how it all started,” explains Sheppard. “Matthews and I were meeting in our office one night”¦and by “˜office’, I mean the Formosa Bar, and started thinking of shows for the next season. In a vodka haze, Matthews mentions The Color Purple, I immediately jump on board with casting choices. I went back to my real office and [still] in a boozy haze, decide to request the rights to do [The Color Purple], knowing full well a theater this size, with no money, was never going to get the rights. Two weeks later we had the rights as the first [small theater] sit-down production ever.  The moral — sometimes booze and having an awesome like-minded friendship can lead to amazing things.”

John Michael Beck

At the time, Beck had just stepped into the chair of artistic director, and the decision to add The Color Purple to the season was a well-calculated risk. “I must admit when [Matthews] and Michael Shepperd first pitched the production to me, I was a bit nervous. “˜You want me to do what?’ But after a few days, I thought about what they had said.  Strip the story down. Cut the number of actors and musicians. Let the story be the star of the show. When you have the two previous artistic directors of the Celebration coming to you with an idea, you listen.  It was one of the smartest and easiest decisions I made for my first season.”

The biggest speculation among the creative team and patrons alike was how they were going to translate a massive Broadway musical with a written cast of 26 actors and a full orchestra to an intimate 75-seat space. For director Matthews, however, it was his vision of paring the show down for an intimate setting that appealed to him in the first place. “It all goes back to the original novel by Alice Walker. I was just infatuated by that book, I read it so many times when I was younger. And then the movie took out so much of what the story was about. I thought the movie really diminished so much of how Celie became a strong woman. The choices that she made weren’t there. And then when I saw the musical a few years ago, I thought that the choices were sort of there, but they weren’t fully realized. I felt like these characters were so cut off from the rest of us, and I think some of it had to do with just the scope and the size of production. That was my primary reason for wanting to move it to a smaller space.”

So a cast and chorus of 26 became a company of 17 (still a large group by Celebration standards), requiring many of the ensemble to tackle multiple parts. The orchestra became a band of five, and the opulent house set became a couple of benches, curtains, and a rolling bathtub. The result of all these “cutbacks” was exactly what Matthews intended. The relationship between the characters and the audience was palpable.

Michael Matthews

Naturally, to create that rapport between audience and actors, Matthews needed to start with the right cast. “Cast the ensemble that we cast and how could the audience not relate to the production?” proclaims Beck. “I’ve worked with many talented casts in my 25 years in theater and I’ve rarely seen a truer example of the definition of ensemble. The cast of The Color Purple was like a machine and each had a moment to shine and make the audience remember them. The audience could see them working each and every moment without ever making the show feel labored or long.  Patrons would linger in the lobby for over an hour after the show just to get to know the actors behind the characters.”

At the heart of the show, and the story, is Alice Walker’s iconic heroine Celie, whose invincible optimism in the face of abuse and the separation from her sister Nettie has made her an iconic figure in both literature and film. Thus Matthews had a critical choice to make in selecting his leading lady. “It wasn’t just about playing a poor black woman, it was about playing a woman who embodies the human spirit, who is so relatable that she can go through everything from A to Z and still has the power to forget. That’s what I was looking for, and that’s what I got.”

The woman whom he was looking for and found was leading actress nominee Cesili Williams, whose journey through Celie made a remarkable difference to her both personally and professionally.  “The Color Purple is a staple in a lot of African-American family homes. When watching as a little girl, I didn’t realized how much Celie’s story would impact my life as a woman. I’ve always thought of acting to be therapeutic, and the role of Celie came right in the nick of time for me. Like Celie, I was at a point in my life where I wanted more, in my career and personally, and was beginning to doubt myself. Although playing Celie was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, it really changed me for the better. Even now, when I have a down moment I think of the lyrics to her finale song and I remind myself that “˜I’m here!’”

Cesili Williams

The combination of such a dynamic, well-defined character and the up-close-and-personal nature of the intimate performance space get considerable credit among the cast and creative team as the recipe for the production’s success. “I believe what really made this production of The Color Purple so successful was the way director Michael Matthews stripped away some of the typical spectacle to really examine the heart of the story and its characters in a way that was raw, intimate and honest,” reiterates lead producer Christopher Sepulveda. “By peeling back some of the theatricality, Matthews allowed the audience into Celie’s world and allowed them to connect with her in a way that has rarely been possible.”

Shepperd likened the experience to watching the events unfold through a Petri dish. “You were a part of how this world evolved. There was no way you couldn’t be emotionally connected to this story when you are literally sitting next to the person it is happening to. The world that Matthews and the crew and cast created was real. Honest. True. When you are confronted by the truth, it causes you to react.  And people did just that — they reacted. I’m just glad it was positive.”

The audiences were so immersed and so drawn in, according to Beck, that many patrons returned multiple times to see the show. “It made people ask the question, ‘How’d they do that?”’ which then prompted many of our guests to return for second, third, fourth viewings.  I often heard from these patrons after the performances that they came back and purposely chose different seats.” They apparently felt that they would glean something different from a different seat.

Members of "The Color Purple: A Musical" cast after the Ovation Nominee Announcement. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

For several of the cast members, the relationship between the actors and audience was a symbiotic one, due to the physical proximity of the theater. “Because of the intimate theater setting we were never able to “˜phone in’ a performance,” explains featured actress nominee Kelly Jenrette (“Nettie”).  “The audience was right there with us from the beginning to the end and, in a way, they helped to keep us honest in our performances.”

“On one of our first rehearsals in the theater,” Jenrette remembers, “we were running the last scene where Nettie and Celie reunite. I came in singing, Hey sistah whatcha gone do”¦ She came in with her part, Goin’ down by the river gonna play with you. We embraced each other and began crying. We were so caught up in the moment that we couldn’t even remember our lines, and this was the first time we had ever run that part. We were so caught up in the moment. And that’s the beauty of what this production brought to its audiences — you get so caught up in the moment that the size of the theater disappears and you watch this woman’s life unfold before you right in front of your eyes.  It was that moment, which was so beautiful and honest, that I wanted to re-create for every person that came to see the production.  It was a gift that I was honored to give every night to everybody.”

Along with questions about the scope of the production, there was some speculation in the theater community and regular patrons that The Color Purple might not be actually gay enough for the Celebration’s standards.

Cesili Williams and La Toya London

The sexual relationship between the characters of Celie and Shug Avery hardly qualifies as the principal relationship of the play, so could the piece qualify as “gay theater”?

“I got this question a lot in the weeks building up to The Color Purple, mainly from my gay male patrons,” remarks Beck. “I was told that it’s not gay enough for Celebration. I would like to challenge that theory. Does it help that there is a lesbian or bisexual storyline between Shug and Celie?  Of course.  However, the LGBT community is so much more than who we sleep with or take to bed. Though we don’t choose to be gay, we do choose our own path on what our life should be. It’s a long path and there are many forks in the road, but it’s those choices that build our characters and our lives.  Whether Celie is a lesbian or bisexual or a victim just looking for love anywhere she can find it, we relate to her because it’s the path”¦the journey on her road to personal acceptance and strength that we want to see in ourselves.”

Shepperd too defends the assertion that this show was in keeping with the Celebration’s voice and sensibilities. “Sexuality is fluid. Celie’s journey is not an uncommon one in the LGBT community. She discovers her true self later in life and learns that love is love. Period.”

In the eyes of Jenrette, the journey of Celie is reflective of the GLBT community both literally and in subtext. It’s not the sexual labels, but the message of the individuals that’s evocative. “I think, in Shug, Celie found courage, strength, acceptance and ultimately herself.  In many instances the GLBT community doesn’t want to be labeled or ostracized, they want to be accepted.  In one of her songs Celie says I don’t need you to love me/I don’t need you to love. Yes, love is great””it may even make the world go “˜round””and it would be great if the world would simply love the GLBT community. I can only imagine that the GLBT community would say “˜If you can’t or won’t love me, the least you can do is accept and respect me for who I am!”

Kelly Jenrette and the ensemble of "The Color Purple"

As Celebration Theatre dives into its next season, with three full decades of tradition in its wake, the creative team and administration are proud and aware of their past, but they keep an eye pointed to the future. Producer and public relations director David Elzer describes the atmosphere around the team as joyful, but focused on what’s to come. “The 13 nominations which, in my humble opinion, are all so well deserved, is just delicious icing on what was an amazing cake!  We should all celebrate the Celebration as they head into the 30th anniversary year. This is a great way to kick off the festivities!  I remember when I was 30″¦” [Laughs]. The premiere of the musical Justin Love, penned by Elzer and directed by Matthews, is currently in previews and will open Sep. 21.

Like most theater companies in Los Angeles, Celebration faces challenges to maintaining a thriving business and contributing to the artistic community. Along with financial straits, the process of finding works that continue to accurately represent the ever-evolving, ever-fluctuating GLBT community is not an easy a process, according to Shepperd. “Of course I want [Celebration] to succeed and be here for 30+ years, but I believe you can no longer just do ‘gay’ plays. You have to embrace ‘queer’ plays, which are not as polite or as conforming as gay plays of yore. There is a whole slew of young and crazy talented playwrights who are tired of the same-old-same-old and whose voices are representing a whole new generation of concerns that have to be listened to. These plays are scary to a lot of folks — particularly white gay males because [these new plays] reflect a community that they may not have let themselves get to know. But these are the real stories now, and I hope CT starts bringing them to the stage.”

Constance Lopez and John Michael Beck after the Ovation Nominee Announcement. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

In Beck’s eyes, the broader thematic scope of The Color Purple reflects this necessity to embrace theatrical works that are more socially encompassing. “We must evolve without forgetting where our roots were planted. LGBT plays have really become more inclusive over the past three decades. The issue plays focusing on the ’80s and early ’90s seem to have morphed into pieces where the focus isn’t on sexuality or coming out.  Characters can be gay or lesbian but that’s not the crux of the stories. That being said, I’m a big believer that should you forget your history”¦ you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Acceptance, not identity, is the focus of Celebration Theatre. And the mission is to tell the stories of real people and real loves, in all their variations. As to what the future holds for the company, Shepperd offers this: “None of us can ever really say what our outcomes will be. But if we remain open it will always be a fantastic ride.”

***All The Color Purple production photos by Barry Weiss

@ This Stage Staff

@ This Stage Staff