The Color Purple Shines Bright at Playhouse and Powers

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohiio – With the Youngstown Playhouse being dark for more than a year-and-a-half, due to the pandemic, what better way to open their 97th season than at Powers Auditorium, the house the Warners built. And it was a grand and sparkling opening with the musical, “The Color Purple,” with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Alice Willis and Stephen Bray.

“Purple” takes place in rural Georgia between the years of 1909 to 1945. Told against the background of racism, abuse and sexual harassment, it tells the story of Celie beginning at age 14 having already had one child, by her father, with another on the way. She is eventually bargained into a marriage to Albert (Mister) Johnson and a life of abuse and hard work. She is not really a wife but a servant to Mister all the while enduring repeated physical and mental abuse. The show follows her journey into a brighter light at the end of her dark tunnel.

Mikayla Moore plays a powerful Celie. From her first scene of 14 year-old innocence through her troubled years and into an astonishing transformation, Moore has the audience in the palm of her hand the entire evening. The audience feels all of her pain but also rejoices with her when happy moments sneak into her dark life. She shines vocally in such numbers as Somebody Gonna Love You and Dear God but nearly stops the show with her “eleven o’clock number,” I’m Here.

Mister gets a strong treatment from James Major Burns. From his first entrance there is no question who the villain of the piece is going to be. His disdain for Celie, as well as everyone else he encounters, is well planted as Burns makes the most of each stage appearance. His Mister’s Song gives Burns a chance to display his incredible vocal ability.

Shug Avery, who befriends Celie, is handled with natural ease by Arielle T. Green. She has an ease of performance and seemingly natural ability that breathes a believability into Shug’s character. Green is in top form in each vocal number but excels in Too Beautiful for Words as she encourages Celie to see her inner self. And she raises the roof with Push Da Button. Tayja Sims gives a touching and sweet portrayal to Celie’s sister, Nettie. With a voice as clear and clean as a bell, she is a highlight in the show.

Returning to Youngstown (her hometown) to play Sofia is Nikita R. Jones. Having worked with Jones many times years ago, I knew her talent. But it has blossomed tenfold since those days. Her Hell No! number got rave reviews from all in attendance. Her grip on Sofia’s character was unrelenting making her an audience favorite.

This cast is brimming with talent from top to bottom. A few others of special mention are Wayne Bonner III as Harpo, Diamond Ford as Squeak and Asia Littlejohn as Olivia. It is unfortunate that space does not permit mentioning many more in this top flight cast. There are no weak links anywhere. Director Trevail Maurice Smith has put together a first rate professional production in all areas. It looked more like a national tour that had been performed hundreds of times prior to Friday night – that’s how polished, natural, and fluid it looked.

The only unfortunate part of the evening, however, stemmed from the fact that there seemed to be a sound problem for much of Act I. It gave a bit of an echo sound to everything which made understanding some things difficult. It seemed to get better by the end of the act with Act II being noticeably better. It also seems that they should pull the orchestra back a bit. It seemed to overpower some of the vocals. Of course, I was sitting right on top of them, perhaps it was better further back in the house.

Set design by Jack and Sindy Hanna was quite remarkable with hanging chairs framed by three light-painted panels upstage. With lighting by Ellen Licitra, it gave the panels and chairs a sometimes rustic look and other times a modern art appearance. It framed the action well and conveyed the numerous moods in the show.

Costumes by Therese Pitzulo were colorful and appropriate to the period. Musical direction by Mazhorell Johnson was right on the mark with a difficult score and choreography by Kiara Jones was lively and energetic and well executed by all onstage.

The Youngstown Playhouse is back and this time collaborating with the DeYor and Stambaugh Auditorium.

Catch this one, you won’t see anything better on tour or on Broadway.
The Color Purple will continue:
Sat. Sept. 25, at 7:30 pm., Sun. Sept. 26, at 2:30 pm.
Fri., Sat. Oct. 1, 2, at 7:30 pm. Sun. Oct. 3 at 2:30 pm
CAUTION: Contains mature content Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Pictured at top: Mikayla Moore and James Major Burns in a scene from The Youngstown Playhouse production of “The Color Purple.” (Photo by Richard Burley)

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