The Color Purple at the Tonys
“I’m Beautiful, And I’m Here”
People swear that you have to see Hamilton. People brag about their tickets, about their transformative experiences about the show. They refer to Lin-Manuel Miranda by his first syllable, they unearth obscure references in even the less-celebrated songs, and wave their merch around, even if they’ve never actually seen the show. I am, of course, referring to myself in most of the above.
But people entreat you to see The Color Purple. They beseech you. My friend Michael’s recent urgent declaration that I see the show was somewhere between lecturing me and begging me. It seems impossible that there could be two shows on Broadway right now that would be not just amazing to see, or exciting—but important.
Danielle Brooks is, by all accounts, a straight-up revelation as Sofia, the role Oprah made famous. Three minutes with Heather Headley as Shug Avery made me a believer, and then there’s Cynthia Erivo. As my friend Vance said, “Now you know, world”. That voice! But even more importantly, those feelings! Didn’t you feel her when she was beaming out those words? “I’m beautiful, and I’m here.”
Then in her later win, she was so unable to contain her joy she was luminous. If you weren’t curious before, don’t you want to see this woman? This woman who did not neglect to mention Jennifer Hudson, even though she’s no longer in the show? Don’t you want to see the person whom Oprah clutched to her bosom at length while the show won Best Musical Revival? The show of which Candy Spelling, as in that Candy Spelling, is one of the producers?
I do. I want to see it because The Color Purple is that rare work that keeps coming to us in different forms and seeming welcome and necessary each time. It felt that way as a book, and later as a movie. I’m not just quoting Oprah, or Erivo’s speech—it takes a truly incredible story to endure that way.
And of course, it’s exciting to have such a huge show headlined by women of colour. A hugely successful, critically-adored Tony-winning show, proving that audiences will and do pay Broadway money, to see these women tell this story, no matter what you may have heard to the contrary, about women watching men’s stories, but men not watching women’s.
Not just this show, either. I thought about Eclipsed, also starring women of colour, and Waitress, with another three women in the lead (and Jessie Mueller knocking everyone straight out last night), and Beautiful, based on the life of Carole King, and I realized something kind of obvious:
There is a lot of equality happening in theatre.
There’s no such thing as the hot chick role – or not outside of Grease. Everyone has a purpose and, especially in musicals, if you’re singing, you have an inner life, wants and emotions. You generally don’t cast people unless they have something to do, some point to get across. No female role is created solely for tits and ass, no male role is esoteric and inexplicable just for the sake of a chiseled jaw. I’m not saying we’re at parity, gender or diversity-wise…but it’s amazing to look around at how right the Tonys get it, and what a huge year it is on Broadway, and wonder why it should be any different in Hollywood ‘proper’.
“I’m beautiful, and I’m here.”
D Dipasupil/ Cindy Ord/ Theo Wargo/ Ben Gabbe/ Mike Coppola/ Getty Images