The Brazilian production of the Broadway musical, The Color Purple
For many years, black Brazilians have had a special affinity for black American history and culture. From the 60s and 70s Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, along with 70s Soul/Funk music and right up to the success of Hip-Hop music and culture and the election of the first black president, Afro-Brazilians have celebrated triumphs and developments within the African-American community right alongside their own similar yet unique history. Considering the similarities and ties that bind the African-American, Afro-Brazilian and African Diasporic experiences, it was with great curiosity and anticipation that I discovered the Brazilian production of the Broadway adaptation of the iconic film The Color Purple being produced with an all-black Brazilian cast (see video below).
Of course, most people are familiar with popular mid-80s film. Based on the novel by American writer Alice Walker, the play is set in 1909 and tells the story of Celie, a black woman living in Georgia who is separated from her sister as a child. Addressing issues such as racial prejudice and sexual discrimination experienced at that time, the story reveals how, through love, a woman finds the strength to triumph over various forms of oppression and, turning around, she ultimately finds her voice.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film version of The Color Purple was released in 1985, with a cast headed by Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Nominated in 11 Oscar categories, the film didn’t receive any statuettes, but got good reviews and took in more $140 million at the box office. The passage of time in the film is shown with the subtlety of some details, such as the age-old string recorder shown at the beginning, marking the beginning of the century, then the jukebox, which symbolizes the 1940s. The 34 years of history are also documented through the evolution of black music, produced by legendary producer Quincy Jones.
According to Spielberg, the was not about blacks, but about people: “From the beginning of the project, I decided it was not a story about a race, color or social situation, but about humanity.” The Purple Color thrills with an account that even after so many years, still touches those who watch it. Which explains why there is a strong potential for the film becoming a hit in Brazil.
The musical premiered on the Broadway Theater in 2005 and ran until 2008. It received 11 nominations for the Tommy Award, but only won one: Best Actress for singer La Chanze. Last season, the musical was reinforced by names like Grammy Award-winning Chaka Khan, playing Sofia and award-winning singer Bebe Winans as Harpo. Budgeted with six and a half million reais, the Brazilian montage of A Cor Púrpura was the musical project that Ricardo Antonissi encountered more difficulties in capturing the production budget.
“People said that a show with only blacks would not bring out the public,” so he teamed up with well-known actor/model/businessman Luciano Szafir in the creation of the production company “Produto Final”, Luciano got in touch with Oprah, who sold the rights for US$75,000, plus 12% of the box office.
Alongside Antonissi, set designer Clívia Cohen, costume designer Jô Resende, choreographers Mariana Matavelli and Mariana Elisabetsky, the translator of the text, who wrote the version of the songs, Szafir was thrilled with the quality of those pre-selected. Luciano disagrees with the producers who obtain public money through tax incentives and charge R$200 (US$112) for tickets. “We will charge popular prices and we will ask people to also bring a can of milk powder to donate to social works.”
“The Purple Color was the first movie that really moved me, made me cry. I didn’t see the musical on Broadway, just a DVD that I really liked. Ricco showed me the project and we immediately got involved,” says Szafir.
Organizing A Cor Púrpura in Brazil
The first floor of the Associação Cristã de Moças (ACM) in downtown São Paulo was pure nervousness. Famous and unknown people occupied the cafeteria area and the corridors of the academy, waiting for the time when they would be evaluated by maestro Marconi Araújo. Everyone hoped to be cast in the musical A Cor Púrpura (The Purple Color), exclusively with persons of African descent.
More than three black singers, actors and dancers signed up. About 400 came to auditions. Experienced and talented artists were eliminated. The selected will still be evaluated by a rigorous American team that will choose who will compose the two professional casts of the Brazilian montage of the famous Broadway musical in its Brazilian version.
Singer Vanessa Jackson, introduced to the public in 2002 on the first edition of the music reality show Fama, told of her participation in the musical A Cor Púrpura which is scheduled to open in January 2012. Vanessa will be the protagonist of the play in the role of Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg in the original film. The premiere, under the direction of American choreographer Jeff Winhing, is scheduled for March 2012 and will feature veteran actor Milton Gonçalves as a guest star.
The cast features 37 black actors/singers chosen from over 2,000 participants and features names such as Adriana Lessa, Leila Cordeiro and Céllia Nascimento. Actress Isabela Fillardis who on the first day of the audition was not very well and wasn’t spared any criticism. In other words, in this production, no one gets any advantage because of fame, because what’s being judged is talent and the ability to perform.
According some sources, actress Camila Pitanga was at one point also invited to participate in the musical, with talk of her actually portraying the character Celie. One has to wonder how audiences would react to Pitanga, a very fair-skinned woman, portraying a character originally brought to life by Whoopi Goldberg, a much darker-skinned woman which much more prominent African features. Although not known as a singer, Pitanga has shown off her singing ability, as some will remember her performing a duet with MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) legend Roberto Carlos in one of his specials for the Globo television network. Actress Taís Araújo was also briefly tossed around as the possible lead in the production.
But from what I’ve seen, Vanessa Jackson looks to have locked up the role as you will see in the video below. Speaking on the auditions and the musical production in Brazil, Vanessa Jackson said: “The Broadway producers came to São Paulo especially for the audition of the play and will closely follow all the editing and development of the work. I will start the play as a teenager and end as an old woman. The film talks a lot about self-esteem and acceptance.”
Needless to say, although I take issue with some elements of the original film, I am still intrigued with the possibility of this production being put on in Brazil. It’s rare that Brazilian television presents more than one or two black faces in any of its productions, much less develop full characters and story lines featuring black Brazilians. And this reluctance comes across loud and clear when we discover that producers are running into problems securing the funding for an all-black show as there is fear that audiences won’t turn out for such a show. I guess that’s just how things go in a “racial democracy,” where race is allegedly not a problem…except when you’re black.
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