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'The Color Purple' premieres at Corn Stock Theatre

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Beautiful, inspirational music has evolved from the African American experience through the years, so it was only fitting that the sensational book that became an award-winning film then be made into a musical, said Sharon Reed.

That is why she was quick to say yes when asked if she would direct “The Color Purple,” which makes its regional premiere at Corn Stock Theatre, opening Friday at 7:30 p.m. It is the final show of Corn Stock’s 2015 summer season.

Reed and Molly Burroughs, who have collaborated on several musicals in the Peoria area, are co-directing the show under Corn Stock’s tent in Upper Bradley Park. Corn Stock turned to them when it got the opportunity to stage the musical and the women didn’t hesitate to do it. “It really is a beautiful piece,” Reed said before a recently dress rehearsal.

They then drove to Milwaukee to see a production of the musical in order to see how the music intertwined with the dialogue that came from the novel by Alice Walker. “It is such a serious drama, I wasn’t sure how the music would fit in. It surprised me a little that they made it into a musical,” said Burroughs.

Reed wasn’t surprised given the other musicals available that came from the life experiences of people, particularly African Americans who knew such suffering. “I teach the kind of music that has come from those life experiences so I know that out of that suffering comes music that brings hope and joy. That’s what this musical does, so it doesn’t surprise me,” she said.

“The music is poignant, awesome, thought provoking,” she added.

“The Color Purple,” which will be revived on Broadway in late fall starring Jennifer Hudson, follows the life of Celie for 40 years, from the time she was 14 in 1909. It is often dark as she and others endure abuse, often at the hands of family, as they struggle to survive.

Songs from the show include “Somebody Gonna Love You,” “Our Prayer,” “That fine Mister,” “Brown Betty,” “What About Love,” and “The Color Purple.” The music was written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  

The cast of 45, out of 82 who auditioned, is all African American, but Burroughs said it wasn’t advertised that way. “That is just the way it turned out. There was an awful lot of talent that we couldn’t use in the show, which was too bad,” she said.

The cast includes former students of both directors, both of whom are retired teachers from District 150. “It is fun to see them now as adults,” said Burroughs.

Reed, who directs the Heritage Ensemble in Peoria, said some cast members are from there. “There are a lot of talented voices,” she said. “The entire cast is doing a fabulous job. And the community that has evolved out of the cast is beautiful. But that comes from the music that has grown out of the African American experience; it brings people together.”

Added Burroughs, “They call themselves ‘The Color Purple Family.’ And it really is like family, as close as we’ve all become.”

The biggest challenge for the directors has been blocking the show for the tent. Neither has directed there before. “It has been interesting. We’ve had to tweak a lot. We’re still making changes,” Burroughs said.

“We’ve done it in layers and the cast has responded well,” added Reed.

The cast includes community theatre veterans and newcomers.

Veterans include Gabriel Lott-Rogers, who starred in “The Wiz” at Corn Stock Theatre two years ago, portrays Celie, Ayana Pankey is Shug, Sammie Hardimon portrays Mister, and Eric Gore is Ol’ Mister and a Church Lady’s Husband.

Other key roles are played by Renee Andrews (Nettie), Jamika Russell (Sofia), York Powers (Harpo), Tommy Arbuckle (Pa) and Tagwana D. Webster (Squeak).

Reed directs the 13-piece orchestra that includes two drummers, including African drums. “The cast is responding beautifully to the orchestra. The excitement that live musicians bring to a show is like nothing else,” she said.

Taunya Jenkins is the choreographer.

The set is not elaborate in design or build, and that’s the way the directors wanted it, said Burroughs. “We want the people to tell the story of ‘The Color Purple,’ so I wanted to do a deconstructed set that can be moved around to depict different places,” she said.

“The Color Purple” runs nine consecutive nights, through Aug. 29, each show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and can be purchased at the Corn Stock box office, 676-2196, or online at www.cornstocktheatre.com.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).