ARTS & THEATER

Justice for Movie Musicals, or Why the Musical Adaptation of The Color Purple Matters 

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Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.

Leticia: Some stories just last beyond their original moment: fairy tales, family histories, and legends, the never-ending Shakespearean adaptation. Some stories transcend time and continue to resonate across generations. Undoubtedly, one might consider The Color Purple as one of those stories. A 1982 novel by Black feminist, artist, and theorist Alice Walker, it tells the story of Celie, a young Black woman in the south fighting to survive multiple forms of trauma and abuse, ultimately triumphant in her pursuit. At its heart, it is a story of sisterhood, resilience, self-definition, and coming into your own. The critical and commercial success of the novel, despite its controversy, earned Walker the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the first Black woman to receive the award.

Jordan: The Color Purple has since spawned many adaptations. In 1985, the novel was adapted into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg in lead role and included a star-studded cast such as Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. 1999, the novel being optioned by Scott Sanders for a musical version that found Broadway success in 2005 with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The musical garnered multiple Tony nominations and included a win for LaChanze in her role as Celie. A highly successful 2016 revival of the musical perhaps allowed what Salamishah Tillet calls an American masterpiece to re-enter public discourse, and what followed eight years later is a film adaptation of the musical. In today’s episode, we discuss this new adaptation of The Color Purple and delve into questions around the genre of the movie musical and the challenge and necessity of representing Black women stories on screen.

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. It is gloomy and a little bit rainy here in Rochester, but we’re going to fight against that gloominess and talk about our topic for today. So this episode is a little bit of a departure for us. We are still talking about theatre. We’re never not going to talk about theatre, but today’s episode is going to delve into movies.

Leticia: We are going to tackle the movie musical, and as someone who was introduced to musicals through the movie musical, I’m actually quite interested to talk with you a bit today about the intersection of film of musicals and where Blackness enters into the frame and why there seems to be a number of movie musicals that at least center around Black life that have been adapted to movie musicals and, quite frankly, had a fair amount of success. I guess a larger question we can ask, and I think this is an intra-racial conversation that we always have, is do Black people like musicals? And if they do, which I know quite a few Black people do like musicals, those who may not go to the theatre to see a musical, why do they support these movie musicals? Why do they support The Color Purple, who, from my understanding, has done really, really well at the box office? Dreamgirls was really big when it came out. So those are some of the questions that I’m interested to chat with you about today.

Jordan: I don’t think I said it when I was introducing the episode, but we are talking about The Color Purple. We’re talking about the new adaptation of The Color Purple Musical. A lot of people we’re confused about this potentially being a remake. Even my mom was like, “Oh, yeah, they’re remaking The Color Purple,” and I had to tell her, “It’s actually not a remake. It is an adaptation of the musical version of The Color Purple.” So a lot of people just didn’t know that it was a musical, which is really interesting. This movie version came out in late 2023. I personally saw it in the movie theatres a couple of days after Christmas while I was home visiting my family. I actually got to see it with my grandmother, which was really special and exciting.

This new version is directed by Blitz Bazawule, and if I’m pronouncing that incorrectly, I am so sorry. Blitz is very well-known as director, specifically for his work on Beyonce’s Black is King. If you saw that visual album version of Beyonce’s album The Gift that was in relationship to the Lion King adaptation, then you are familiar with his work. This film was also adapted by playwright Marcus Gardley, who folks may know most familiar with his work on his play The House That Will Not Stand. I believe we saw one of his plays that went up at Baltimore Center Stage. This movie also has choreography by the one, the only Fatima Robinson, who I am a huge fan of. I remember taking a class with her when I was a kid, and so I’m really just in awe of all the success that she had as a Black woman choreographer in multiple movie musicals and multiple music-related things. So very exciting to see her work in this musical.

Leticia, tell me a little bit about your encounter with The Color Purple. How familiar are you with the source material? Have you seen other adaptations of it? What’s your familiarity with the story?

Leticia: So I think I was first introduced to The Color Purple, the novel, in high school. I was in something called the IB Program.

Jordan: What does IB Stand for?

Leticia: International Baccalaureate Program. And it’s similar to what people in the states would know as AP. So, we read a lot of novels that folks who were not in the IB program did not read, and The Color Purple was one of those novels that we read. So I firmly remember reading the novel, enjoying it, and then I’ve seen the movie. I can’t place when I’ve seen it, but as in all Black households, you have your staples, right? You’re going to watch Boyz n the Hood; you’re going to watch The Color Purple. You’re probably going to watch Roots maybe, potentially, right? There’s certain Black staple films I feel like that you see when you’re younger.

I knew Oprah at that time and I was like, “Oh, Oprah’s in this,” and Whoopi Goldberg was also huge at this particular time when the film came out and when I seen it. So I recognized certain figures. I don’t remember much about the film, and I didn’t actually know there was a musical until I got into graduate school, and then I had the opportunity with you to see it at Signature Theatre and it was… I love the music. I’ll say what I like about the musical adaptation is that it is, I think as an adaptation, goes really in conversation with the original source text. So that’s my encounter with The Color Purple.

As a Black woman, I’m a big fan of Alice Walker and her work, and this being one of the legendary pieces that continues to circulate in our public imagination I think is really important. I think there’s a larger conversation about Black woman’s work being allowed to exist in different forms. I do appreciate the project of Color Purple is that it has been allowed to circulate in different mediums. We have the novel, we have the film, we have the musical on stage, we have the movie musical. I think there’s actually a lot of value for people being able to encounter and re-encounter work.

I do appreciate that at the top of the episode you mentioned that this is an adaptation because I think that is very important and I think a lot of people, sometime when things are adapted or, well, it’s not originally this source material, and I think we’re uniquely able to talk about The Color Purple as a musical on stage, but also a movie musical because our training, and I feel like a lot of folks can’t—or not can’t, but they may not—understand the mechanics of musical theatre enough to understand and to have a genuine conversation about what is left in, what’s left out, what manipulations, and what genre impulses are being made with this source material.

How about yourself? When did you encounter The Color Purple?

Jordan: I actually believe I saw the movie first, probably a cardinal sin to admit that. The movie first, it was something my mom showed to me when I was younger. I grew up in a household that really, as you said, there’s the staple movies. I remember my parents sitting me down and having me watch Boyz n the Hood, and then also, my family sat me down and we watched the Roots together when it was playing over and over again, I believe, on TV One. I went to a majority Black school for elementary school, and so they actually played a lot of Roots in, we had to watch it in school.

My mother is a huge fan of The Color Purple as the novel. I remember seeing it on her bookshelf my entire childhood. It never really called to me to pick it up until I was well into college, and that’s when I first read the novel and it was really moved by it. It was very struck by Celie’s story, all of the different women’s stories in there, this particularly being a story about queer Black womanhood and all of the ways that it tackles misogynoir. Oh, didn’t you also, sorry to interrupt my own story, but didn’t you also see the 2016 Broadway revival?

Leticia: Yeah, I did. I’ve totally forgot about that. Yes, with Cynthia Erivo as Celie.

Jordan: Yeah, and Danielle Brooks was in that one. Never forget. Also, I’m pretty sure Joaquina Kalukango, who you all might know, theatre lovers, theatregoers, will know from Paradise Square and winning the Tony Award for best leading actress in that musical, was in that 2016 revival version as Nettie, I believe, and Heather Headley played Shug Avery—so star-studded cast of iconic Black women. Cynthia Erivo was also awarded the Tony Award for best leading actress for her portrayal of Celie in that version that you got to see, Leticia.

Leticia: It was the year when it was Hamilton and The Color Purple, so it was majority Black folks winning all the best actors.

Jordan: And Shuffle Along.

Leticia: Shuffle Along, yeah, so it was the year that everyone was like, “Whoa, Broadway’s really Black right now.” There’s a lot of Black shows and a lot of Black talent on stage. Then of course, that reverted back the next year. It was a great year, and I would recommend for anybody who may not be familiar with the music or the stage play to check out the Tony performance.

Jordan: Stunning. Absolutely stunning. I have memories of seeing The Color Purple. So The Color Purple musical actually started in at the Alliance in Atlanta, Georgia. I have memories of seeing the version of The Color Purple, but I don’t think it was the original version with LaChanze. I actually believe it was the national tour with Fantasia. I don’t remember a lot. I don’t remember everything about seeing that show, but I remember really enjoying it. Then seeing it again, well, we saw it a year or so or, oh, probably two years now—oh, my goodness, time flies—at Signature Theatre in DC. That was the first time I had returned to the musical since seeing it when I was a preteen, and I was really moved by it. That was an incredible production that we saw at Signature, and it just made me appreciate The Color Purple as a musical so, so much more.

Leticia: I think the story is very suited to the form of the musical. I think in my experience seeing it both on stage in the movie musical, I think it plays very well. I think music is so ingrained within the community. I know that we are not talking about the movie, the film, just yet, but just even in the opening scene when they’re at church, and music is so important part of the church. So I think it’s so ingrained in the story. If I’m remembering correctly, I think Alice Walker’s novel also attunes us to that quite well. So it seems like such a genuine partnership that it doesn’t seem out of place that music was then placed on top of this source material to make a musical.

You mentioned earlier about you’ve seen Fantasia in it. I’ve seen it with Danielle Brooks, Heather Headley. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts about what makes the movie musical or even Black musicals the place where folks who may not be trained as musical theatre artists and/or even actors find within the musical themselves. I think there’s a quite long history, of course, I’ve not done any research on this of that being the case for Black musicians, either making the jump to musical theatre or doing a show. I think Brandy did Chicago at one point, but also actors like Taraji P. Henson, I don’t think anyone before this film would’ve said that she was a musical theatre actor by any case, but she somehow has found her way into the adaptation movie musical of The Color Purple.

You have to get them to buy into the conventions of the musical while also trying to tell this really coherent story, but also give you some movie magic, while also keeping a little bit of that theatre in it. I think it’s a really difficult task.

Jordan: That’s such a great question and thing to bring up. I want to say we’ve touched on it a little bit on this podcast around the appearance of celebrities in Black musicals. I also have not done significant research in the phenomenon of very famous Black stars being in musical theatre, but this does have a pretty big resonance. I think that, for example, Vinnette Carroll’s musical, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, had a really successful production. I believe it was a revival that starred Patti LaBelle and Al Green. Al Green received a Tony nomination for his work in that musical.

When we look at that, adaptations such as The Wiz, The Wiz was very highly, highly successful on Broadway. Then once it came a movie version, rather than casting the original Broadway stars, which included Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, they instead opted for Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, just really big name stars in order to do that. I don’t think Black musicals are the only movie musicals that do this. I think that oftentimes any adaptation is going to get some celebrity clout by choosing people who are really big names, especially in Hollywood, to do their role, such as Les Mis with Anne Hathaway or Evita very famously casting Madonna in the role.

I don’t think that it’s only something that’s endemic to Black movie musicals, but I do think it’s interesting that it’s just such a huge thing that happens with that. I think it’s just a part of marketing in general. I think Taraji P. Henson, while she’s not necessarily associated with musical theatre because of her work in Hollywood, I’m pretty sure I heard her talk about… So she went to Howard for undergrad, and she won their Triple Threat award, which is awarded to, I’m pretty sure, a theatre arts major, a performing arts major that is successful in the Triple Threat arena, which if you are not familiar with what that term means, that means that you are an exceptional dancer, singer, and actor. Taraji P. Henson has had experience in training in musical theatre, but oftentimes, I just feel like Black actresses or Black actors in general are not seen as being musical theatre stars.

So I think it’s easy to then cast Black celebrities in those roles because already Black actors are not as, in many ways, I’m not going to say this is a blanket statement, but just in many ways are not finding this huge success in musical theatre because of the ways that representation has worked in that genre historically.

Leticia: That makes perfect sense, and I agree with you. Also, capitalism always runs rampant, right? So if you buy into the belief that Black folks don’t see movie musicals, and in order to be successful you have to go to genres or hire folks who are in genres that have some camaraderie within a popular Black public. It makes sense why you would go to a Fantasia and a Taraji, which I think a lot of folks may have not even been familiar with Corey Hawkins. He’s one of the standouts in the film for me. I will say I did think it was well-casted. I’m not always a fan of going outside of musical theatre in these movie musicals for these big roles because oftentimes folks forget they have to act as well sing. So, I actually was very happy with the casting. I think that it was casted very well. I thought that each principal actor did what they needed to be done.

Jordan: I agree. I was really enthralled, that is the word I’m going to use, with the performances in this film. Even though I, again, knew that Taraji P. Henson had this musical theatre background, but just to see how electric she was in the role as Shug Avery was just like… She was fabulous. She was freaking fabulous. Her vocals were gorgeous. Her dancing, oh, my goodness, her dancing was so good, and I just was really… It was just amazing to see her command the movie in such a way. I was really, really, really impressed with her work in this movie. Just incredible.

Also another acting standout for me, Halle Bailey all the way. Halle Bailey all the way. I just thought there was a, and we talked about this a little bit off the podcast, but just there was a subtlety and a nuance and just quiet strength in her portrayal of Nettie, and this nurturing presence that she had for her sister in the movie. I was really just blown away by her performance.

Sorry, guys, don’t get mad, but I didn’t see Little Mermaid. I’m sorry. It’s not because I didn’t want to, it just slipped past me. So I hadn’t gotten to see her in her leading role, regrettably, but I just thought she was fantastic in this role. Just amazing. Obviously, we know she’s an absolutely ethereal singer, but I was really impressed with her performance, and I hope she does more musical theatre like, “Go back to the stage, girl. You can do that. You can be on Broadway, for sure.”

Leticia: In your experience, I think a lot of people don’t know that she was in the theatre at a young age. She was in Atlanta doing theatre, and I think that training really, and that experience really showed up in the movie musical film. I agree, I think she was absolutely a standout. She captured the subtlety of Nettie, and the way that she was able to capture the language that is, quite frankly, not our language in which the pattern and the pace and the dialect in which we speak today I thought was just really, really great. I felt like all of the actors in their pairings when we think about Nettie, young Nettie, young Celie, older Nettie, older Celie, Shug and Celie, Harpo and Sofia, I think all the actors did a really great job of making sure that we felt that connection with their scene partners, which I think is really, really difficult to do, especially in a story that, for all of its triumphant conclusion, is a really painstaking, hard, traumatic thing to watch Celie constantly get beat down and beat down and beat down, and not just Celie. Sofia when she gets arrested, I think also it’s just like, “Oh.”

I tip my hat off to this movie musical, and I know there’s been some critique around the musical, which I have my own critiques, the movie musical, which I have my own critiques for, but I think one of the critiques that I don’t necessarily buy all the time is folks saying that something was extracted from the film, the movie musical, because they took out particular lines from the novel or they rephrased something.

I think that sometimes if we’re really looking at this as an adaptation, then those choices, those creative choices were going to be made in part because it’s hard to squeeze a what is probably like a three-hour, three-and-a-half-hour musical into two and a half hours.

Jordan: 2x, 2x. usicals are notoriously long, guys. They’re super long.

Leticia: It’s really hard. It’s really hard. It’s really difficult. Quite frankly, I think movie musicals, any movie musical is really put through the ringer because it’s not the usual genre in which the public, which films are made for, are used to consuming, so you have to get them to buy into the conventions of the musical while also trying to tell this really coherent story, but also give you some movie magic, while also keeping a little bit of that theatre in it. I think it’s a really difficult task, and I think The Color Purple, for all intents of purposes, did what it could do within the confines of the genre, and it did it very well. I will definitely watch this film again. I think this is a great teaching tool to have students dialogue around films and plays or filmed plays or whatever. I took a class like that in undergrad. I think it’s interesting to have a conversation about what is lost and what’s gained in that transition from stage musical to film musical.

Jordan: So just generally, even though this isn’t necessarily either of our research, we do not write about the movie musical as a genre, but something you said earlier that I really want to go back to, Leticia, is you talked about your introduction to musical theatre being through the movie musical. I think that that is such an amazing point to make because I often think that there’s this purity of discovery. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve …” I do this because I’m a hipster sometimes too where I’m just like, “Well, I read the book first,” or, “I did this first,” or, “I have been obsessed with the cast recording of the original Broadway cast from 1965 of whatever movie musical is coming out.” So I understand there’s this purity or this protection that fans may have when their favorite thing gets popularized or adapted into something like a movie or even a musical or what have you.

I think it’s really important to talk about the fact that this is a public display, that and even the most recent adaptation of Mean Girls musical, there’s just this resurgence, I feel, or this investment that theatre is having, Black theatre in particular is having because it feels like it’s not so insular anymore. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m projecting way too much on those just very small examples, but it just feels like theatres entering into the public discourse again in a way that it really hasn’t previously.

Leticia: I think there’s something to say about this really unique relationship with Black folks in musicals because I watched The Wiz when I was young, but my parents never went to a musical a day in their life nor any theatre, but somehow they knew that The Wiz was a musical that we needed to watch. So I’m curious with that relationship with Black audiences that really come out and support musicals, Black musicals in particular. I don’t think that those same communities are perhaps being like, “Oh, yes, now we need to go see Mean Girls,” but I think there is something about the musical’s ability to blend these expressive traditions of Black life and put it all in one place that I think is quite undervalued or overlooked perhaps is a better phrasing of that when we think about the movie musical.

While people even on Twitter were like, “Nobody told me this was a musical,” there was still people that were still wanting to engage it. Again, I don’t know how they didn’t know it was a musical, but that’s neither here nor there, but I think there is something to say about that questioning not being a question of, “Am I going to go see it?” but a question of like, “Well, I really didn’t know. If I would’ve known it was a musical, I would’ve gone with the expectation that they were going to be singing,” but I think the gravitas of something like Color Purple is that the music is also really, really damn good.

That opening number, that opening song, that closing, I just think it just gives us so much, and I guess we can perhaps transition here to talk a bit about the film in particular. So, for folks who haven’t seen the film yet and want to watch it and don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to stop the episode here because we’re going to be talking about particulars.

So, what are your thoughts about the movie musical?

I think that this new adaptation speaks to exactly why, in the hands of Black creators, Black stories find a new complex, nuanced perspective.

Jordan: I mentioned that I saw it with my grandmother, and I did that for a particular reason. Because I am a theatre scholar, because I’m a dramaturg, because theatre is my life in many ways, I find that a lot of people expect me to be super critical of theatre and anything theatre adjacent. I can see where they would make that determination or that impulse, but seeing the movie with my grandmother, I’m not saying I didn’t and don’t have critiques of the movie, but the actual pure joy that this movie inspired in my grandmother just made me happy. It made me happy that it exists and that so many people were touched by it.

I was in a packed theatre in Stone Mountain, Georgia of mostly Black women and Black families in general, and just like the “oohs,” the “ahs,” the moments of inspiration. Literally when the credits started rolling, this woman just literally says to the screen, “Damn, that was a good movie.” I just want to start it off, my thoughts on the movie, by saying that because I think that we talk a lot about Black joy, Black joy, Black joy, honestly, it just speaks to—and I’m very disappointed with Alice Walker’s very transphobic comments that she’s made recently because I think that her story, her story, AKA The Color Purple, is such a testament to what Black women need. We need our stories to be told. We need our stories to be represented.

Nana is talking about all the things that she—Nana’s my grandmother—is talking about all the things she’s went through in her life, and we were able to have that conversation after the movie because of seeing Celie’s narrative. She saw herself and she saw parts of herself and other Black women she’s known. I just cannot stress enough how important it is that we continue to revisit Celie’s story. I think Celie’s up there with these heroes and heroines that we uphold across theatre and literature. Celie, I think, is one of the most iconic, iconic protagonists in American literature, bar none.

Leticia: Let me jump in real fast and just say, I 100 percent agree with you. I think what’s really important about what you just said also is that even within the story that’s being told in all of its iterations, Celie needs Sofia, but there’s also a moment when Sofia needs Celie. Shug needs Celie, and Celie needs Shug. So it’s this multi-directional care and love and presence within Black women that is just the staying power, at least for me, within this story. I think that relationship is definitely communicated beyond just the story that is told within The Color Purple. So I just wanted to say that because I was really struck by what you shared about your grandmother.

Jordan: It’s something that, for example, the movie adaptation by Tyler Perry of For Colored Girls, what that adaptation gets wrong about, For Colored Girls, is that it dials down the fact that there’s sisterhood among the women. Yes, they suffer, yes, there’s trauma, yes, there’s misogynoir, all these different things. I’m certainly not arguing that these pieces of art aren’t displaying the traumatic portions of Black womanhood, but it does not usually focus on the relationships that Black women have with each other. The fact that Celie finds her voice because Sofia helps her give it. Sofia is in prison, and who’s visiting her every week making sure she has a hot meal to eat? Celie. So, six years.

Then I also want to say too, what I loved about the movie is that that was, yes, so many terrible things happened to Celie. So many terrible things happened to her in the course of this story. In this version of the movie, I did not feel like Celie’s trauma was the focal point of the story. I felt like her self-discovery and her finding her voice was. I deeply, deeply felt as if there was a concerted effort by the creators of this film to center Celie’s triumph and her coming of age and self-discovery rather than this spectacle of her traumatic life.

Leticia: Like the Spielberg film.

Jordan: Clock that, and I think that speaks to… I know Spielberg got a lot of criticisms back in the day for not being a Black director and taking on this very iconic Black story. I think that this new adaptation speaks to exactly why, in the hands of Black creators, Black stories find a new complex, nuanced perspective. To me, this didn’t feel like Oscar bait-y trauma feel. “How can we capitalize on Black women’s trauma kind of thing in order to get awards?” type of thing. It really, deeply felt… I felt the care, I felt the love, I felt the nourishment of Black women’s lives and stories that I often feel is devoid in theatre and musicals by, I mean, not by, but about Black women that are by non-Black creators.

It feels like to me in The Color Purple, it feels like all of the different ways that I’ve seen this narrative be treated. This is one of the few that I actually felt like Celie was a person. She’s a person. She’s had really horrible things happen to her, but she has thoughts, she has feelings, she has ideas. She wants to design pants.

Leticia: Some of the standouts for me is the choreography. I was really pulled by the choreography, and there were just moments, standout moments. Corey Hawkins can dance his face off. Likewise, you was really impressed with Taraji P. Henson and her dancing, but I just also thought the choreography was just so lived in and so within the world that the story was telling us. It didn’t feel they were trying to Dougie when they’re doing Ms. Celie’s pants. I felt like there was a… Of course, Fatima Robinson is legend, amazing. Of course, we expected nothing less, but I thought there was just a genuine investment in making sure that the choreography lived within this world and that it would be connected with the stories that were being told.

There was a clip going around on Twitter of just some more choreography where they do the Nicholas Brothers splits. That didn’t make it into the movie, but the clip is circulating. Also, I just love… There’s just something I love about watching Black folks dance and be happy and dance. The joy that Black people get from dance, there’s just something that just tugs at my heartstrings to see Black folks together dancing hard and loving on each other and pumping up. So I really enjoyed that as a standout for me in the film.

Jordan: Seeing this movie, it’s just like, “Damn, the music in this musical is so good.” It is absolutely so good. Although I have personal beef with the fact that y’all didn’t include one of my favorite songs from the musical, which is “Brown Betty,” I’m not going to hold that against y’all—

Leticia: I am.

Jordan: But I just want to know why.

Leticia: I know. That would’ve been so good. Oh, Brown Betty (singing).

Jordan: Because there’s something about Black men not fetishizing but admiring the natural physical beauty of Black women that I feel like that song really celebrates. Oftentimes, and I’m teaching Black feminist theory this semester, and I’ve been reading a lot about the Black feminist writers tackling the relationships between Black men and Black women and how they’ve been ruptured by systemic oppression in so many ways, so that public celebration of Black men just loving the way Black women look, and again, not in this fetishistic way, but more so about their beauty like how… I don’t know. Anyways.

Leticia: Justice for “Brown Betty.”

Jordan: Justice for “Brown Betty.” Justice for “Brown Betty.”

Leticia: Your grandma’s name also is Betty, so also that would’ve been a nice moment.

Jordan: Yes, yes. No, I was so excited. I was like, “No, Nana, there’s this one song I think you’re going to love in particular,” and it never happened. She’s like, “What was the song?” and I’m like, “It’s a moot point now, Nana. It’s a moot point,” but Marcus Gardley says something about the music adaptation in the film, which I know that there’s talks about the new arrangements or whatever, but I just want to say y’all it’s always going to happen. Anytime a musical adaptation happens, there’s going to be new arrangements of the song because it’s going to be a new music director or it’s going to be the music director trying to do something different.

Even In The Heights, which the movie was done by Lin-Manuel Miranda, still had new arrangements and lyrics and everything of the songs, so just saying that. Also, so Marcus Gardley says that, “One thing that we were really cognizant of is making sure some of the songs were upbeat. It changed the temperature and also helped us understand that characters, true to their own resilience, could pull themselves out and show their strength.” I thought that was interesting,

I don’t know that I necessarily think that all songs need to be upbeat in order to show joy, strength, and resilience, but I find that to be a really interesting sonic choice is to make songs more upbeat, show a different sonic thing in order to invest in that thing that we both recognize as them truly actually celebrating Black women’s joy and community with one another.

Leticia: That’s interesting because I feel like the original music has that. We open up with (singing).

Jordan: I feel that way too.

Leticia: We have (singing)… I feel like, even in the original musical, there’s different sonic temperatures and tones that really balance it out well. So that’s an interesting quote from Gardley. I love the music. I think I told you after I watched it, I was like, “Man, the music for The Color Purple is really, really good.” I was like, “I really, really, really love it.” I’m a ballad girl, so I love the ballads that we get in the moment. “I’m Here,” with Celie, that makes me ugly cry every time I hear it. They got singers, let’s just put it that way. They got people that could actually hold these songs, which makes it even better. I will say with the direction, for the most part, I loved it. I will say there were some moments where I was questioning the choices. I think this happens, actually, quite frankly, to movie musicals a lot, is that they don’t want to live within the world that the story is told. So for them, I think many times it’s like, “Well, in real life, we don’t sing, so this can’t exist only in realism.”

Even though I would say that The Color Purple, the story is a story that lives within realism, and the music does that as well. Perhaps it’s them trying to capture the theatrical magic that can happen on stage in the film world, but it seemed a little off to me. I’m talking about two particular moments at the beginning when young Celie is singing and she’s in this deserted field with the men hitting, looking like they’re on a chain gang hitting the ground with these sledgehammers to the beats, and then she goes into a waterfall with these women washing their clothes, which actually doesn’t reflect the world that we’re about to see. It seems like they’re living in the woods, in forests, a space with a lot of greenery. So I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting choice.”

Then the one that really drove me crazy was when Shug’s in the bathtub and they’re in there and they’re doing their little song or whatever, and next thing you know, we’re on a record player on a disc spinning around. I just didn’t understand the choice to take us out of the world that we were living in and just have them sing under those conditions because we don’t actually really do… We didn’t do that throughout, I think, the rest of the musical. I didn’t identify any other moments where that happens necessarily, but it just took me out for a moment because I was like, “Well, let’s just live in this world where it reflects our world,” but they also sing songs and then dance and then stop and go back into dialogue.

So I was a little curious about that choice, and perhaps it’s because of the conversation about how queerness once again, another adaptation of The Color Purple, falls outside of the purview of what it’s trying to accomplish.

Jordan: Absolutely. I was absolutely going to… I can’t speak to that first moment with Celie as a young girl and her, I guess, escaping to her imagination could be the sticking point of that, but I agree that it still took me out of it, but the moments between Shug and Celie, when that kept happening, it happened twice with them, in my opinion, that moment you talk about with the record player, and then it happened again when they were at the movies. Then it transported into this ballroom-esque. When they’re singing what I personally think is the best song in the musical, which is “What About Love.” I love that song. I listen to it all the time when I need some inspiration, and I love it. I think even some of the ways that some of the creators talk about it makes me know that this was not supposed to be about highlighting the fact that they had a romantic and sexual, yes, sexual relationship. They were together together in the novel. That’s what they were doing. The musical does a little bit of a better job highlighting their true romantic relationship, but it still doesn’t go as in depth, obviously, as the novel does.

Steven Spielberg talks about the flack that he got for erasing the queer narrative, and he’s like, “Well, I just wanted to keep a PG-13,” which we can have a conversation about why a queer relationship can’t be PG-13. Also even in the new adaptation, Fatima Robinson, the choreographer, talks about how women will feel so empowered and so in love with the sisterhood between Celie and Shug. It shows their closeness and there’s an attraction to each other, but it doesn’t cross the line.

Leticia: What line? They were lovers. Literally, they were lovers. Come on, Fatima, girl, you got to do better.

Jordan: So it speaks to the fact that there was a concerted effort, I feel like, to contain the queerness, to contain it in the new adaptation, which it just still doesn’t go as far. They wake up together, and so I guess you can say there was an implication, but by saying that they’re just sisters, just gal pals, just friends being friendly, it’s just like, I don’t know that I’m in total agreement with that. Perhaps I have too much fidelity to the novel, but I just think that it’s really… We rarely get to see queer women, queer Black women in particular being represented within theatre, but also musical theatre in particular.

I think that this may be one of the few times when there’s even a Black queer relationship between women represented in musical theatre. So to have that, it’s not even that common for white women either. There’s Fun Home. There’s only a few other ones, but in general, just The Prom, yes, The Prom, so Jagged Little Pill, but really, it’s just incredibly rare to have queer women be represented, let alone queer Black women. So I was very disappointed with that. I wanted them to be a lot more. I wanted that to be highlighted more or I see people trying to say, “Well, I don’t know if Celie really… I think she just really admired Shug,” blah. She was in love with Shug. She was sexually attracted to her. She thought she was fine. You know what I mean, in the nineties way, not like girl crush or whatever. They were in love with each other. So anyways, I think that was very disappointing, once again, part of this movie.

Leticia: I share your critique of how their queer relationship was depicted and how their story also ends up on the cutting room floor in a way that I didn’t think we needed to necessarily … I don’t think the whole idea of Shug telling Celie, “I love you and I love being with you, but I want to run off with this man. It’s going to be the last time that I’m going to come back, and we’re going to live our life together,” I even feel like that would take up a lot of time narratively, but I think the ambiguity around their relationship was definitely intentional because they were trying to account for folks who may want to see this movie who are homophobic, which is disappointing, which is disappointing. Overall, I did enjoy the movie musical.

Jordan: I also wanted to say one thing before we wrap up is that someone talks about the fact that Shug never, in this adaptation, calls Celie ugly, and I just wanted to highlight that, and I think that is important to say that while their relationship was very dialed down, a very lightened version of what happens between them, I do think that that was a significant contribution and change to the narrative that people clocked. I didn’t notice it when I first saw it, but after seeing some folks highlight that, I think that’s really important and interesting, right?

Leticia: Right. Yeah, no, thank you for bringing that up. I think it’s also an important thing to note about the musical adaptation for film. So if you have not seen it just yet… I don’t think it’s in theatres anymore, but if it’s in theatres, go; but also, it’s available on Apple. You got to buy it or rent it, but it’s available now for streaming within your home. So I would highly recommend it. I think even if you haven’t read the novel or seen any of their films, I think you’ll still enjoy the story that’s being told in this way. I really do highly recommend it.

For other movie musicals that might tickle your fancy, we have, of course, we are going to highlight Dreamgirls directed by Bill Condon, one of Jordan’s absolute faves, Sarafina!, directed—

Jordan: Leticia has had the displeasure of watching Dreamgirls with me, and I know that movie the back of my hand. It is hands down one of my favorite movies.

Leticia: Not displeasure at all, not displeasure at all. Sarafina! directed by Darrell James Roodt; The Wiz, directed by Sidney Lumet; and Sparkle, the 1976 version, let me repeat that, the 1976 version directed by Sam O’Steen. So check out those movie musicals. I think you’ll definitely find something if you have not watched them before or and also just revisit them if you haven’t watched them in a while. They’re definitely a pleasure to watch.

Jordan: Just for some articles that help you think a little bit about movie musicals, adaptations of musical theatre, we have just a few that we like to recommend, In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of An American Masterpiece by Salamishah Tillet. So this book really talks about Salamishah Tillet’s own relationship with The Color Purple, namely the novel, but she does also delve into the other adaptations. So while it’s not specifically only focused on the musical, she does delve significantly in the book around the reception of the musical and her relationship to it, and interviewing some of the actresses who are a part of it, such as Cynthia Erivo in the 2016 revival. So really want to recommend that book.

Then Disintegrating the Musical Black Performance and American Musical Film by Arthur Knight mainly discusses movie musicals in the early to mid-twentieth century, but is a very great look in depth on the genre of the movie musical, and specifically how it relates to Black people and Black audiences. Then finally, La Donna Forsgren’s article, “The Wiz Redux; or, Why Queer Black Feminist Spectatorship and Politically Engaged Popular Entertainment Continue to Matter,” where she discusses The Wiz—sboth the 1978 version the movie but also the live version that happened a few years ago that was directed by Kenny Leon—and talks about queer Black feminist spectators watching these musicals and what they may offer to them.

So please check out these movies. Please check out these other resources and continue to think about moving musicals in Blackness. This was such a fun episode and getting to talk about something different for us. So, I love movie musicals.

Leticia: Likewise. We will see you all next time for another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. Thanks for listening.

This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we interview musical theatre artist-scholar Masi Asare. We have so much in store for you all that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter, @DOLorrainePod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.

Leticia: Our theme music is composed by Inza Bamba. The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and howlround.com. If you’re looking for the podcasts on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, you’ll want to search and subscribe to “Daughters of Lorraine podcast.”

Jordan: If you loved this podcast, post a rating or write review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find the transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.



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