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When We Dead Awaken

October 25, 2007

One of the things I dearly love about attending productions on other nights besides press night is that you get to sit in a real audience -- one with actual paying customers, most of whom are not on speaking terms with the director, producers or members of the cast.

The feeling was palpable last night at The Color Purple, which the good people at Shorenstein Hays Nederlander allowed me to experience a couple of weeks into the run despite their usual no-media-on-any-night-but-press-night rule.

For the first half of the show, it seemed like I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room rather than a Broadway-esque theatre. The house was about half full. There were very few reactions to the songs. People clapped politely even after a couple of really whooped-up, high-energy ensemble numbers. I know Alice Walker's tale about an abused young black woman isn't exactly high comedy, but it is a thorough tear-jerker. So I was perturbed by how "cold" the house felt considering the popularity of the material and the passion of the performances.

In the second half, though, the temperature rose dramatically. It was as if someone had forgotten to push the button for the first hour and 20 minutes of the show, for the audience suddenly came to life after the intermission. Somehow the plot, which had been chugging along steadily up until then like an old steam train, gathered speed. It took the audience with it. I heard laughter. I heard sniffles. I saw a few people around me delving about in their handbags for Kleenex. At the end of the show, pretty much everyone who wasn't in a wheelchair got up and gave the cast a standing ovation. This is no big deal in the U.S. -- standing ovations are common place. But given the lukewarm reception of the first half, the adulation of the crowd at the end of the show took even me by surprise.

Was the audience relieved to see The Color Purple finally over? (I certainly was -- the musical, though only 2 1/2 hours in length, felt longer than most productions of King Lear and Hamlet I've seen in the past.) Or were the theatregoers genuinely moved by the show?

Personally, I felt like my feet were in ice-water for most of it. It was only right at the end, when Celie is reunited with her sister and children, that I felt a lump in my throat. Perhaps I'd seen one too many theatre productions about the plight of the black community lately to really feel touched by this musical. By a particularly strange coincidence of scheduling, my previous three essays for SF Weekly have covered Bulrusher, Appomattox and The Bluest Eye -- all shows that deal in some way with the African-American experience. This might have contributed to my slight feelings of jadedness about the musical. But on the whole, I think my feelings about The Color Purple echoed the general temperature, particularly in the first half. I wonder if the actors felt the chill too?

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