The Color Purple, the gospel-infused feel-good musical about Celie, a woman who overcomes abuse and finds love with another woman, opens at Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, April 6.
The national tour has been packing houses all over the country—it played a sold-out run at the Arsht Center in Miami last October. While many of the performers seen in Miami are still in the show, The Color Purple has a brand new Celie. Michigan native Dayna Dantzler has been with the national tour a little over two months, and the starring role is her largest to date.
“I haven’t had to demand this much from myself in a while,” says Dantzler
The Color Purple started as an epistolary novel by Alice Walker and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The story chronicles more than 30 years in the life of Celie, a teenager raped and abused by her father, forced to give up the two babies she bore him, separated from her beloved sister, and bartered in marriage to a man who continues her daily degradation. But Celie is transformed by the love of the glamorous singer Shug Avery, and through that love, finds her voice and a way to escape the torment of her life.
The film version of The Color Purple, released in 1985, was directed by Steven Spielberg and made stars out of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, who both made their film debuts in The Color Purple. The story took to the stage in 2005 as an upbeat, inspiring musical. It ran for more than 900 performances and was nominated for 10 Tony awards, winning one for LaChanze, who originated the role of Celie.
To help her get inside the head of Celie, Dantzler read Alice Walker’s book over and over and watched the movie.
“I paid attention to the words that Alice wrote and internalized them to see how they affected me,” Dantzler says. “I looked at Celie’s situation and how I would feel if I had to go through some of the circumstances she’d been through.”
The love and sexual relationship between Celie and Shug portrayed in Walker’s book was downplayed in the film, but is much more prominent in the musical.
“The movie was in the ’80s and it was pretty taboo,” says Dantzler. “Nowadays, we’ve started to pull the wool from over our eyes and realize that life exists this way.”
Dantzler believes in the restored prominence of the women’s relationship, saying that it’s integral to Celie’s evolution from a cowed abuse victim to a strong woman who finally believes she deserves to be loved.
“Shug is actually the one person who shows Celie that she could be loved, is beautiful, and deserves everything that everyone else is able to get,” she says. “Celie is the first person who loves Shug not for her looks, but actually loves the person Shug is. It’s a beautiful relationship.”
Dantzler is reluctant to put a label on Celie and Shug’s sexuality because she believes that the relationship is about falling in love with the person rather than the gender. She points out that when Celie meets Shug, she is not the beautiful, glamorous woman Celie had always heard about. Rather, Shug is frail and sickly, and at her lowest point.
“It’s through Celie’s caring and nurturing and bringing this woman back to life that they find the real love,” says Dantzler. “I don’t want to call Celie a lesbian and I don’t want to call her bisexual, but she’s not asexual either. It’s more than sex between Shug and Celie. It’s true love.”
Audiences have been accepting of the portrayal of the relationship on stage.
“I’ve not heard any negative comments,” says Dantzler. “In Tennessee, it was kind of a funny reaction—you can hear that ‘Woo!’ In some other places you can feel some shifting in the seats, but it is what it is. It’s life.”
Dantzler praises the empowering message in The Color Purple.
“There are so many women who don’t understand the value of their worth, but The Color Purple shows that through love, sharing, fellowship and family—no matter what kind of family it is—we all matter, deserve love, and we should all enjoy the fruits of life together,” says Dantzler.
Although The Color Purple takes place over several decades, ending in the 1940s, many of the hardships that Celie faces, such as abuse, low self-esteem, and being dominated by men, are still issues for women today. Dantzler points out that perhaps the most inspiring facet of Celie’s story is that she overcomes all of the horror in her life.
“If Celie can do it, anyone can,” Danztler says. “If we can understand how important each and every one of us is, we may be able to move forward.”
The Color Purple
Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.
For tickets and more information,
call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.