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Sympathy for The Devil? The Color Purple’s Gavin Gregory Makes the Case for "Mister"

The North American tour cast of <em>The Color Purple</em> includes (from left) Carla R. Stewart as Shug Avery, Adrianna Hicks as Celie, and Carrie Compere as Sofia (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The North American tour cast of The Color Purple includes (from left) Carla R. Stewart as Shug Avery, Adrianna Hicks as Celie, and Carrie Compere as Sofia (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The bodacious 2017-18 North American tour of The Color Purple: The Musical, based on the musical’s Tony Award®-winning 2015 Broadway Revival, produced by TROIKA Entertainment, LLC of Gaithersburg, MD et al., and brilliantly reimagined by 65-year-old Scottish director, choreographer, and set designer John Doyle, will roar into the Durham Performing Arts Center for eight high-octane performances on April 3-8. This touring version of The Color Purple, which is being presented as part of DPAC‘s immensely popular and critically acclaimed 2017-18 SunTrust Broadway Series, is based on African-American author Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel, which is set between 1909 and 1949 on red-dirt farms in rural Georgia, in a posh living room of a mansion in Memphis, and during a fantasy sequence in Africa. The novel won the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The musical is also based on the 1985 Academy Award®-nominated Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring comedian Whoopi Goldberg — in her Oscar®-nominated big-screen debut — as Walker’s poor, long-suffering, uneducated heroine Celie Harris Johnson, who is brutally beaten, repeatedly raped, and twice impregnated in her early teens by her stepfather, who gives her children away and then gives Celie herself away in marriage to “Mister” (a.k.a. Albert Johnson) (played by Danny Glover), a stern, whip-cracking, mean-as-a-snake taskmaster who continues the cycle of physical and emotional abuse and treats Celie as a virtual slave in his household. By the time sultry free-spirited jazz singer Shug Avery (played by Margaret Avery) swivels her hips into Mister’s life and sets his cold, cold heart ablaze, Celie has drunk so deep from the well of bitterness that it could take decades for the healing power of love to revive her sagging spirit.

This inspirational musical about the triumph of love and the human spirit over decades of degradation, misery, and abuse features a sassy script by 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama- and 1991 Tony for Best Book of a Musical-winning playwright and 2016 Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother and The Secret Garden) and a stirring score by Grammy Award® winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The Color Purple had its world premiere, directed by Gary Griffin and choreographed by Donald Byrd, on Dec. 1, 2005 at the Broadway Theatre, where it racked up 910 performances before closing on Feb. 24, 2008. It earned eleven 2006 Tony nominations, including nominations for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score; but took home no Tonys.

Gavin Gregory stars as Mister in the North American tour of <em>The Color Purple</em> (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Gavin Gregory stars as Mister in the North American tour of The Color Purple (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Gavin Gregory, who plays Mister on the current tour, joined the cast of the original Broadway production in December 2005. He says that a few months later, he was playing Henry “Buster” Broadnax and understudying the role of Mister’s oldest son Harpo.

“The first incarnation of this musical was big,” says Gregory. “It had multiple sets and costumes. You had a lot of things there [to help you] to tell the story.”

According to Wikipedia, the show’s 2015 Broadway Revival, directed by John Doyle, with musical staging and a minimalist set by Doyle, is a remounting of the musical’s first international production, which Doyle directed. That British production ran from July 17 until Sept. 14, 2013 at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London’s Off-West End.

The 2015 Broadway Revival debuted on Dec. 10, 2015 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where it racked up 450 performances before closing on Jan. 8, 2017. The revamped musical earned four Tony nominations, and won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, plus the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical. The show’s 2017-18 North American tour commenced on Oct. 7, 2017 at Proctors in Schenectady, NY; will play the Belk Theatre in the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, NC on July 10-15, 2018; and is scheduled to conclude on Aug. 26, 2018 in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

“When you tell the story in such a minimalist way,” says Gavin Gregory, “it draws the audience in, and keeps them focused on the storytelling.” He adds, “There is no lurking [onstage]. You have nothing to hide behind. It’s just you. You have to be extremely present when you’re onstage. There is nothing else there. Nothing.”

Carla R. Stewart (left) and Adrianna Hicks star as Shug Avery and Celie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Carla R. Stewart (left) and Adrianna Hicks star as Shug Avery and Celie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

In her review of the tour for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sharon Eberson wrote, “The Color Purple might as well be ripped from the headlines of 2017, so prescient is the early 20th-century story of abuse and retribution, redemption and forgiveness. Brimming with potential pop hits for powerful female voices, the musical breaks the bonds of victimization with the declarative ‘Hell No’ and shatters them with the anthemic ‘I’m Here.’ … [Director/set designer John Doyle has] stripped [the musical] down to wood and fabric and put all of the emphasis on depth of character and the feast of songs ….”

In addition to Gavin Gregory as Mister, the tour stars Adrianna Hicks as plain-as-an-old-shoe Celie, N’Jameh Camara as Celie’s pretty younger African missionary sister Nettie Harris, and Carla R. Stewart as Shug Avery. The tour also stars J. Daughtry as Mister’s oldest son Harpo Johnson; Carrie Compere as the headstrong Sofia, whom Harpo impregnates and marries and then physically abuses until she leaves him; and Erica Durham as a young waitress and would-be blues singer named Squeak, who works at Harpo’s juke joint and soon finds herself the object of her boss’ affections. The Ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Darnell Abraham as Celie’s son Adam, Amar Atkins as a Guard, Kyle E. Baird as Bobby and Sofia’s new boyfriend Buster Broadnax, Jared Dixon as Shug Avery’s lover Grady, Gabrielle Reid as Celie’s daughter Olivia, C.E. Smith as Preacher and Ol’ Mister, and J.D. Webster as Celie and Nettie’s abusive stepfather Alphonso “Pa” Harris, plus Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West as three Church Ladies. Swings include (in alphabetical order): Clyde Voce, Nyla Watson, Nikisha Williams, and Michael Wordly.

Besides director, choreographer, and set designer John Doyle, the show’s creative team includes associate director Matt DiCarlo, music supervisor Catherine Jayes, music director/conductor Darryl Archibald, lighting designer Jane Cox, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, hair designer Charles G. LaPointe, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, fight consultant Tom Schall. production stage manager Melissa Chacón, and stage manager Richard A. Leigh. The show also features musical staging by John Doyle, orchestrations by Joseph Joubert, keyboard programming Randy Cohen, and casting by Telsey + Co.

Gavin Gregory (left) and J. Daughtry star as Mister and his oldest son Harpo (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Gavin Gregory (left) and J. Daughtry star as Mister and his oldest son Harpo (photo by Matthew Murphy)

“I was born and raised in Warren, OH, about 50 miles south of Cleveland, not too far from Akron, in LeBron [James] country,” says Gavin Gregory. In his Wonder Years, he wanted to be a singer. “I wanted to be Babyface [nee Kenny Edmonds] and Maxwell [nee Gerald Maxwell Rivera],” he confesses. “I did a couple of plays in high school, but I never paid much attention to [theater] until I moved to Atlanta, GA [at age 22].”

When it comes to The Color Purple, the soulful 50-year-old baritone recalls, “My first encounter with the story] was definitely the movie, way back in the 1980s. It was one of the first movies that ever made me cry…. It just blew me away. The storyline was incredible.”

“When I first saw Danny Glover play Mister, I was 16 and 17, and he was amazing,” Gregory notes. “I could see that Mister was a troubled man, hard and mean….

“As a grown man,” says Gavin Gregory, “I understand Mister better now…. He was a man whose father was a slave, and ended up buying the land he was a slave on….”

Gregory adds, “Mister’s father did not have the tools to teach him about love and relationships…. Ol’ Mister looked upon women as possessions and not human beings….

“As an actor,” Gregory says, “I think that one of the worst things that you can do is judge a character before you play him…. You have to embody him…. I think he’s definitely worth redeeming.”

Gregory notes, “The character of Mister is the antagonist in this play. It’s always easy to look at the antagonist with disdain and [attribute] unredeemable characteristics [to him].` All Mister knew how to do was work the land…. This was a black man running his own business and owning the land…. He didn’t have the grace to look at women as living, thinking human beings. He looked at them as property”

Gregory says, “The easy way out is to always look at the antagonist as a two-dimensional human being. What I try to do, night after night, is show the audience that Mister is a three-dimensional human being, but he’s extremely flawed….

 

The cast of <em>The Color Purple</em> includes (from left) Bianca Horn, Carrie Compere, Carla R. Stewart, Adrianna Hicks, Erica Durham, Angela Birchett, and Brit West (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The cast of The Color Purple includes (from left) Bianca Horn, Carrie Compere, Carla R. Stewart, Adrianna Hicks, Erica Durham, Angela Birchett, and Brit West (photo by Matthew Murphy)

“It’s amazing to me how timeless the story is,” says Gavin Gregory. He adds, “It reminds us of our humanity…. It’s definitely an empowering story for all of humanity, but particularly for women.”

It’s a story that provokes a visceral response from theatergoers. “Oh, yes, I can feel the hate,” says Gregory. “Audiences are supposed to hate me … until the end of the show. They’re supposed to despise me, because Mister makes Celie’s life a living hell.”

Audience may hate Mister, but theater critics love Gavin Gregory. In her Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review, Sharon Eberson writes, “The title song is a beauty, and ‘What About Love?’ sung by Celie and Shug at a tender moment, tugs at the emotions with the best of them. Gavin Gregory’s cruel Mister finds his voice in ‘Celie’s Curse,’ a howl of revelation when he wonders, ‘So tell me how a man do good / When all he know is bad?'” She adds, “In the movie and the original Broadway production, the characters show their age through graying hair and makeup. Mr. Gregory shows the weight of the world on his shoulders through his slowed gait….”

In her review for the Forces of Geek website, Kristen Halbert adds, “… Gavin Gregory’s Mister is the standout performance on the men’s side, both in baritone and stage presence. Male-heavy numbers like ‘Big Dog’ and ‘Shug Avery Is Comin’ to Town’ showcase that even though this musical is designed to have the women shine, the men are a force when they hit the stage….”

Gavin Gregory cautions DPAC patrons: “Prepare to actually see a book come to life. [The Color Purple] definitely deals with adult themes. If I were going to rate this show — like a movie — I would say it’s definitely PG-13.”

<em>The Color Purple</em> stars Gavin Gregory and Adrianna Hicks as Mister and Celie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Color Purple stars Gavin Gregory and Adrianna Hicks as Mister and Celie (photo by Matthew Murphy)

SECOND OPINION: March 28th Burlington, NC Times-News preview by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/color-purple-star-on-broadway-business-and-brainpower/; March 28th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: http://www.wral.com/-the-color-purple-takes-on-timely-message/17444134/; and March 19th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Interview with Carla R. Stewart, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Carla-R-Stewart-Steps-Into-Shug-Averys-Shoes-In-THE-COLOR-PURPLE-20180319.

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents THE COLOR PURPLE at 7:30 p.m. April 3-5, 8 p.m. April 6, 2 and 8 p.m. April 7, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 8 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $51.44-$163.50, plus taxes and fees. Click here for $20-$30 rush tickets and other DPAC Special Offers.

BOX OFFICE:

DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), tickets@dpacnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1073053.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.

SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/the-color-purple and https://www.facebook.com/events/331630240592398/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqNDSZs09-CniiEqHJQKTQw.

DPAC NEWS RELEASE: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/four-blockbuster-shows-on-sale-sept-16-at-10-am-on-your-feet-les-miserables-the-color-purple-and-waitress.

DPAC‘S 2017-18 “TEN GREAT YEARS” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2017-18 and https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/announcing-suntrust-broadway-at-dpac-2017-2018-season.

THE TOUR: https://colorpurple.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/the-color-purple–515750, https://facebook.com/ColorPurpleMusical, https://twitter.com/bwaycolorpurple, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqNDSZs09-CniiEqHJQKTQw.

TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://colorpurple.com/our-family/.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/directions.

PARKING: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/parking.

NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, April 7th, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

The Color Purple (1982 epistolary novel): http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.com/nge/Article.jsp?path=/Literature/Fiction/Works&id=h-1243 (New Georgia Encyclopedia, compiled by the Georgia Humanities Council) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple (Wikipedia).

The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Alice Walker (Putnam County, GA-born novelist, poet, and political activist): http://www.alicewalkersgarden.com/ (official website), http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/alice-walker-b-1944 (New Georgia Encyclopedia, compiled by the Georgia Humanities Council), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alice-walker-398542 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Walker (Wikipedia).

The Color Purple (1985 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/71239/The-Color-Purple/ (TCM Movie Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088939/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple_%28film%29 (Wikipedia).

The Color Purple: The Musical (2005 Broadway musical and 2015 Broadway Revival): https://colorpurple.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-color-purple-398534 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple_(musical) (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: http://parksquaretheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/TheColorPurple2015.pdf (Park Square Theatre of St. Paul, MN).

Brenda Russell (music and lyrics): http://www.brendarussell.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/brenda-russell-391911 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brenda_Russell (Wikipedia).

Allee Willis (music and lyrics): http://www.alleewillis.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/allee-willis-398541 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allee_Willis (Wikipedia).

Stephen Bray (music and lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/stephen-bray-90080 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Bray (Wikipedia).

Marsha Norman (book): http://marshanorman.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/marsha-norman-7556 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsha_Norman (Wikipedia).

Gavin Gregory (Atlanta, GA actor who plays Mister): https://colorpurple.com/our-family/ (tour bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/gavin-gregory-436824 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/gavingregorymusic (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/gavinsoul (Twitter page).

AUTHOR:

Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

 

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