WILMINGTON — The last time Kevin Lee-y Green staged the musical “The Color Purple,” his favorite number was the big gospel opener “Mysterious Ways.” Eleven years later, it has shifted to the penultimate, self-reflective “I’m Here.”
“It’s interesting,” he told Port City Daily earlier in the week. “Back then, I didn’t have a care in the world, right? Everything was where I wanted it to be.”
In 2012, Green and his mom, Donna Joyner Green, were opening the musical in Brunswick County’s Odell Williamson Auditorium through their theater and dance company, Techmoja. The Greens founded the organization in 2009, with the goal to provide actors of color and disenfranchised talent a place in the theater world.
Green is reprising the show on Thalian Hall’s main stage, only this time he is going about it solo. His mother passed away in 2014.
“I wish my mom was here, her physical presence, to see everything I’ve accomplished — things she told me would happen for me,” Green said earlier in the week.
Since its founding, Techmoja has staged roughly 75 productions, including this year’s “West Side Story.” This time around with “The Color Purple” musical — based on the Alice Walker 1982 novel and subsequent Steven Speilberg film, and a new movie-musical set to debut Christmas Day — Green finds himself digging deeper into its meaning.
The director and choreographer has reflected on its script and characters through the lens of his own life’s trials and tribulations and the women who have supported him along the way. The number “I’m Here” is about discovering a newfound confidence, a discovery of self-love and acceptance.
“I have dealt with a gamut of things — from homelessness, due to the great loss of my house burning down, to having to find my way without my mom, to financial struggles,” Green said. “But all of it is so beautiful in the timeline of my life, and it was so important and needed. And with all that, I’ve also had moments of triumph and prosperity. Through it all, God was the constant.”
“The Color Purple” touches on the same message. The story takes place between 1910 and 1940 in Georgia, told through letters written to God and between its sisters, Celie and Nettie. The plot highlights traumas and hardships of four Black women who endure rape, incest, domestic abuse, poverty, sexism and racism, but resilience always stands tall.
“It is a story specific to a Black woman, but the themes are universal,” Diedre Parker, who plays Sofia, said. “Secrets, lies, betrayal, abuse — it’s all in there, things that happen regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or ethnicity. I believe that if the audience finds the place where their story connects with that of the characters, they will see the humanity of others and will enter into creation with empathy and compassion.”
Green has also cast Denise Jackson (Celie), Rayana D. Briggs (Nettie), Adrienne DeBouse (Shug), Adriana Hough (Sofia) and Breonna Bowenas (Squeak) as female characters. The male counterparts include George Maize (Mister), Brandon Bradley (Harpo) and Maxwell Paige (Ol’ Mister). Their lives intersect in various ways, though at the heart of the story is Celie.
As a 14-year-old, Celie has faced years of sexual abuse from her stepfather. He has taken one baby from her and now another, after finding out she’s pregnant again with his child. Her sister, Nettie, is perhaps one of Celie’s most beloved confidantes, a cheerleader and protector. Celie thinks her sister and children have passed away.
“Nettie represents my mother,” Green said. “I see that now after having had that great loss in my life since I did the show last time. There’s a feeling like the only person in the world who truly understood you and loves you is taken away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it — I mean, it really hurts.”
Celie’s story is told over many years until she’s 54. Jackson, who is performing the character, was an “American Idol” contestant and traveled from Texas to do the show. She’s coming off of the same role in August, as “The Color Purple” was staged at the Jubilee Theater of Arts in Dallas. The audience watches as Celia overcomes many harm and poverty without sacrificing perseverance or forgetting those who helped her along the way. It’s evident in the song “Miss Celie’s Pants.”
“After all of the mountains she had to cross over and all of the valleys she had to struggle through, she is wearing the pants,” Jackson described as one of her favorite numbers. “This show is important to Black arts because of its message of forgiveness and triumph.”
Yet, she said it’s throughline — “that there are never losses but lessons” — will appeal to the human experience overall.
Throughout the show, Celie’s acquaintances mirror attributes she learns from. There is Shug Avery, a prominent performer of the era, fulfilling many roles in Celie’s life — providing motherly guidance and becoming a love interest. She teaches Celie about self-worth.
DeBouse is returning to the stage to perform as the flamboyant blues singer, outspoken and confident. Despite her success, she is still judged by others as promiscuous and of low morality. DeBouse last took on the role in 2012 for the company and said she is drawn to her character’s honesty.
“She embodies what it means to endure hardships and prejudice, even from her own people, and still has the will to push forward and love herself,” DeBouse said.
The actress equates Shug’s real-life appeal to author Alice Walker’s astute insight into defining feminism — or as she writes “Womanist” — in myriad ways. Shug reaches a modicum of fame, something of which most Black community members in the South had little chance of doing at the time.
“She was able to rise above the low expectations for our people of that era,” DeBouse said. “She was a self-made business woman who also opened up business opportunities for others. That I would define as exceptional.”
Green said part of Shug’s achievements came by adapting to her surroundings — putting on airs in different company and having to perform, not just to entertain but to acclimate. Yet, he said audiences see her truth shine when she settles into a juke joint and can “be free and sassy.” Green called the survival technique “code switching.”
“It’s when a person of color might be in the company of people who don’t look like them and they feel like they can’t be physically themselves,” he said. “They may carry themselves a certain way in order to feel safe.”
It’s a concept he’s been familiar with in his own life and watched other Black friends and performers endure.
“We’re always taught to just keep pushing through,” he said. “It took me a long time to get to the point where I understood I don’t have to code switch to be liked and being authentically you is important.”
Green remembers doing the musical “Brigadoon” as a child — a story about a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands. He was the only Black child participating in a sword dance onstage and thought: “I don’t truly fit with any of these families.”
It didn’t deter him because his pursuit of the arts was one of pure love and passion, which his family’s support continued to nurture. His mother was the director at the Hannah Block USO and Community Arts Center and oversaw its Broadway on Second Street Camp.
Having grown up in Bolivia, Green performed in numerous productions locally during youth. He remembers it wasn’t until he saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a child with Boise Holmes as a Black lead playing Jesus a shift in perspective happened.
It’s one of the reasons Techmoja was founded, Green clarified: to amplify Black stories and show representation. In 2010, the production company did “Jesus Christ Superstar” with a full Black cast. Green is clear, however, the company’s goal isn’t to ostracize audiences or actors but add to the humanity that live theater emotes — particularly by telling stories that pinpoint the Black experience.
“When I’m speaking about the importance of Black voices, people don’t tend to understand that it’s not coming from a place of separation or prejudice,” he said. “It’s coming from a place of: ‘I’ve lived this my entire life and I understand it,’ so for it to be told through the lens of someone who has actually been in and dealt with it is important.”
Green explained he leaned more into his own vulnerability directing the show and encouraged the actors to do so to capture the characters’ spirits. He directed them to tap into their personal lives.
“When you do, that’s when you get authenticity,” Green said.
While misdeeds acted upon the characters and their resulting pain can easily propel anger, distrust and even minimizing one’s own strength, Green wanted to push beyond surface reactions. At some point, he said, peace has to come.
“You have to be able to move on with your life,” he said.
That’s evident in Sofia, for instance, a fighter who teaches Celie about standing up for herself and learning when to let go.
Two actresses, Hough and Baker, are taking on the roles on different nights.
Parker played Sofia in 2012 for Techmoja. Her favorite track in the show is “Hell No” — focused on courage to choose survival and self-preservation.
“I wish I heard this song when I was an impressionable teenager,” Parker said. “It gives me courage to try things — to live fully understanding that I’m here because there is value in me. I’m not afraid to say it out loud.”
The Sofia character refuses to be a maid for white people and will not be subservient to her Black husband. She’s beaten by her husband yet manages to never lose hope, belittle herself or succumb to fear. The plot line is parallel to the fight Black people have had to content with and continue to, Parker noted.
“Death is not only physical,” she described, meaning a person’s character can always falter under the weight of mistreatment. “We [Black people] have to fight for body autonomy. We have to fight to wear our hair the way it comes out of our head. We are hypersexualized and over-policed. We even have to fight to own our emotions lest we be deemed ‘angry’ or ‘threatening.’ Sofia never gave up.”
That courage and vigor, in different ways, inspired the actresses performing as Sofia. The character is mostly recognized for her ability to soldier forth unflinchingly — “being Black sometimes mean we are not taken seriously and we have to be stern on what we say and never step down,” Hough said. But Sofia’s softness is also apparent when analyzing how she fights for love.
“She was a jellybean: hard on the outside, soft and sweet inside,” Parker said. “This show covers the human condition in all its beauty and all of its ugliness. It tells the story of people who are oppressed but still find ways to live into their full humanity.”
For Green, “The Color Purple” musical is a full-circle moment, from its grassroots founding to recent expansion. His dance leg of the company began national tours in the last few years, with the goal to grow international Green has participated in panels at conferences with some of the nation’s best choreographers and his work can be seen on the big screen or streaming from one’s living room as well, such as a dance scene his choreographed for season two of Amazon’s locally filmed “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”
“It’s just mind-blowing because you always say these are the things you want,” Green said. “But when they come, you still realize, it’s just another day.”
“The Color Purple” opens Thursday night and runs through Sunday through Oct. 29, with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. A full orchestra brings to life sounds of the time, including ragtime, jazz, gospel and blues. Dances including Lindy Hop, African dance and liturgical moves, often experienced during worship — “all the things that speak to Black experience and culture,” Green said.
The show is at Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.; tickets start at $37.
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