Gracious, Miss Celie’s work boots have covered a lot of ground since her story was first set to music at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2004.
The Color Purple followed its world premiere there with a 15-month Broadway run and a first national tour that lasted nearly three years. This edition, the second national tour, first kicked up dirt in Baltimore in March 2010. Its cast of 25 and accompanying crew get a respite when its windows are shuttered June 26 in Nashville (although 2012 bookings are promised). All told, some 1,400 audiences, give or take, have seen Miss Celie’s journey from down-and-out 14-year-old to gray-haired entrepreneur.
The show’s Atlanta homecoming is a bit of a trifecta: There’s its birth at the Alliance; the fact that it’s set in Georgia (from 1909 to 1949); and finally, there’s Taprena Augustine, who plays Shug Avery.
Augustine, a New Orleans girl, settled in Atlanta in the late 1990s and early 2000s, doing background vocals for various R&B artists, performing at Apache Café and Café 290, appearing at the Alliance in A Christmas Carol and Sophisticated Ladies, and at Atlanta Lyric Theatre in Little Shop of Horrors and Hairspray. She began singing in Big Easy clubs at age 8. (“It was New Orleans, no one cared,” she explains.)
She’s used that Bourbon Street background to inform her portrayal of Shug and the research she’s done on popular singers of the day, particularly Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and Ethel Waters (1896-1977).
“Bessie had a wonderful way of turning adversity into triumph, and many of her songs are the tales of liberated women,” biographer Chris Albertson wrote of Smith. He could just as easily have been describing the fictional Shug Avery.
Janis Joplin once said, “[Ethel Waters] showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.” Celie might have used the same words to describe Shug.
The character of Shug Avery is appropriately complex. She is a Southern woman, first and foremost. A singer. A preacher’s daughter. A traveler. A woman uncomfortable with the conventions of the time, which would have her wed, waiting on her man and having babies.
Augustine also points out that the story of The Color Purple begins when people were barely a generation removed from slavery. “I cannot imagine growing up in that time,” she says. “You had limitations.”
There seem to have been few limits on Augustine, who made her move from regional to national theater about as quickly as you can say “push ‘da button.”
Heeding the advice of Sophisticated Ladies castmates a few years back, Augustine booked a brief working vacation to New York, lining up as many auditions as she could. The gamble worked: In that one week she booked 1½ years of work, including a role in the national tour of The Pajama Game and this gig in The Color Purple.
What sets this production of Color Purple apart from Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 movie, she indicates, is its “voice.”
“The music has the capacity to change everything, to express anything,” Augustine says.
For evidence she cites “Hell No!,” Sofia’s declaration of independence from her beloved, misguided husband Harpo. Or Shug’s “Too Beautiful for Words,” sung to Celie, who has felt nothing to that point except her “ugliness.” Or Celie’s triumphant “I’m Here,” an affirmation of survival after four decades of hard labor, beatings, and sexual and emotional abuse.
Augustine sees herself as a “work in progress,” a feeling that aligns her more with Celie than Shug. Although she’s worked professionally for a good amount of time and is onstage for eight shows a week, she sees every performance as a chance to improve something, be it vocal technique, breath control or becoming more aware as an actor.
For her, The Color Purple even has a touch of ministry to it.
“I’ve never done a show where people come up to me afterward crying,” she says, “where battered women come up to me and say ‘thank you.’ You realize your power to touch people is amazing.”
The Color Purple plays the Fox Theatre June 15 through 19.
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre. Visit www.synchrotheatre.com.