By Lise Funderburg
O the Oprah Magazine
Lise Funderburg got a backstage pass, and she’s still humming the score.
Smart, tough women I know who have seen The Color Purple in rehearsal say their eyes started filling about three minutes into the show. They are huge fans of the new production that opens on Broadwav this month, not simply because as editors at this magazine they have a connection with Oprah, but because they found themselves moved in everyway imaginable by this latest incarnation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. First, though, a little backstory: Bringing the book to the Broadway stage—as a musical, no less—seemed to many (including Walker and this writer) to be, well, not the greatest of ideas.
Why a musical? The story was already told twice—first in the novel, which has so comfortably settled into the literary canon that it ranks on the American Library Association’s list of the ten most reread books in the country (along with Winnie the Pooh and The Great Gatsby). And second in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, which placed in the top five box-office earners of 1985. His Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars and contained one tour de force performance after another, including Whoopi Goldberg in the leading role of Celie and the film debut of Oprah as her daughter-in-law, Sofia.
The storyline of Purple is anchored in a poor, rural black community during the first half of the 20th century. Celie is impregnated twice by her father, violently separated from her beloved sister, ridiculed by the community, and for decades brutalized by a husband who treats her as chattel. What lyrics, I wondered, would rhyme with incest or infanticide? What dances best represent emotional degradation?
Given such doubts, I suggested that perhaps another writer might be better suited to cover the new musical. But my editors insisted, saying I didn’t need to love the idea to write about the show. And I had to admit, I always felt an attraction to the story—it’s set in a town based on Alice Walker’s childhood home of Eatonton, Georgia, which happens to be next door to my father’s hometown, Monticello. I know from my family stories that in both towns community, faith, and internal resilience were the only protections against the brutality of racial bigotry. How would these qualities translate to a milieu where Mamma Mia! rules?
Alice Walker’s initial reaction matched my own. “Even though the novel has so much music in it, I was hesitant,” she says. “A lot of musicals seem frothy and lightweight.” Furthermore, she had faced savage criticism in the aftermath of the film—for denigrating black men, marginalizing all men, and promoting lesbianism, among other purported sins. The sting of the controversies, which she once described as causing her spirit to lose its shine, hasn’t diminished with time. “I didn’t want to revisit that,” she says.
But Scott Sanders, the former executive producer of Radio City Music Hall who originated the project eight years ago, wasn’t easily deterred. To him, the book’s message—that people’s essential spark and generous spirit can triumph over devastating cruelty—can never be heard enough. “She’s my hero,” he says of Celie, “and I’m a white male.” Walker sensed his sincerity from the start—he displayed what she felt was “a beautiful enthusiasm.” She gave him the go-ahead.
When I sit in on a September rehearsal, my own resistance melts away. The Broadway cast has just been assembled. Some actors had recently come on board, while others, like LaChanze (Celie) and Felicia P. Fields ( Sofia), have been with the production pretty much from the start, including an Atlanta trial run in 2004 that broke the theater’s box-office records.
Actors, dancers, and singers fill two rehearsal rooms with focus, fervor, commitment, and beauty beyond belief—gorgeous voices and faces and bodies (one male dancer in particular should be considered a controlled substance). Over and over, director Gary Griffin and LaChanze dissect a scene in which Celie spits into a cup of water about to be drunk by her raging father-in-law. While they work, the actors who play Celie’s husband and father-in-law repeat the lines that provide the backdrop for Celie’s action.
“Is that all you care about,” demands Celie’s husband, Mister: “farmland?”
Old Mister, his father, explodes in response. “Do you know what it means to own something?”
This piece of dialogue strikes home with me. My own grandfather felt the preciousness of land, especially upon seeing time and again how easy it was for African-Americans to lose it, as they were forced into sharecropping or exile to the industrial North. “And once land goes from black to white,” he would say, “it never goes back.”
Like the beginnings of a fever, I feel the infection take hold. I go home with a CD of three songs and find myself playing it two, five, seven times. The score reflects a wide range of styles—blues, ragtime, jazz, and gospel (most rousingly in the opening bars of Sofia’s anthem to independence, “Hell No!”). For the music, Scott Sanders reached beyond the theater community with his dream team of Brenda Russell (who wrote the hits “Piano in the Dark” and “Get Here”), Stephen Bray (Madonna’s former producer), and Allee Willis (who wrote Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” as well as the theme for television’s Friends). The range of music the trio has come up with for Purple is astounding: Celie’s haunting supplication in the title song is a world apart from Shug Avery’s saucy juke-joint numbers, and the soaring harmonies of Celie and Shug’s ballad, “What About Love?” Alice Walker tells me she loves the music, too—she plays her CD when friends come over; sometimes they’ll just get up and dance.
I call Marsha Norman, the librettist for the show, who happens to have won a Pulitzer for her play ‘night, Mother the same day Alice Walker won hers. “One of the great story models of all time,” Norman says, “is about what you do when you lose what you thought you had to have to survive. We respond to that story because we fear it. And The Color Purple is the story of one girl with no chance who, because she comes to have faith in herself and in other people, becomes the center of a community The story itself doesn’t flinch from the violence, nor does it flinch from the redemption or the joy.” The editors who saw the play tell me they felt committed to see how the story turned out, as if they were not just witnesses but participants in something important. Norman agrees. “You have a chance to make this story turn out right for this girl. Alice started it and everybody who comes in, whether it’s the orchestrator or dancers or whoever comes into the room, we all feel blessed to be asked to help in the saving of some extraordinary treasure.”
I’m excited now about the show, about how ambitious it is, how, as Marsha Norman told me, it will reinstate men in their full dimensions (as they were in the book but not the movie), “in their strength and their glory, as well as in their oppression and anger.” But I’m a little nervous to talk to Alice Walker. Just before I dial her number, I remember the Eatonton-Monticello connection. And that my grandfather, as the only black doctor around, was known across the county. And that for many years he had a second office in Eatonton.
“I have a few questions for you,” I say after introducing myself, “but first, I wonder if you’d mind a ‘small-world’ question?”
“No,” she says, “but I have one for you, too.”
I leap. “Does it have to do with Georgia?”
“What is it?”
“Did you know Doctor Funderburg?”
“He was my grandfather.”
“He saved my mother’s life.”
Then she tells me how he took the time to explain why Walker’s mother could barely breathe during an illness, wrapping a string tightly around one finger and saying, “This is what’s happening to your lungs.” We talk about her mother’s warm feeling toward my grandfather, how much she appreciated his care.
We talk about how hard that place was on people, and we talk about their resilience and humor and deep attachment to the land of hillocks, streams and ponds, peach orchards and pecan groves, cattle pastures and tall stands of pine; the red clay that couldn’t be washed out of clothes after a long day in the fields. Her parents are gone, my grandfather is gone, and we thank each other for this chance to bring them close.
“I loved my grandfather very much,” I say
“You knew him?”
“Yes. He lived to be quite old.”
“Do you have pictures of him?” she asks.
Sure I do. Would I send her one? Of course, I say.
“He was such an important part of the community,” she says.
And that’s it. I am bound now to this musical incarnation of her story. Celie’s story belongs to all of us, as Marsha Norman said, because we at once fear and embrace it. It belongs to me, now, too, out of that unexpected collision of circumstance, choice, and simple biology that makes people matter to you.
This, I realize, is the reason I was given this story to write.