What the musical "The Color Purple" teaches us ALL about love.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple debuted as a musical on Broadway in December 2005. When most people think about the musical, they think about Oprah Winfrey. After all she, Quincy Jones, and Harvey Weinstein produced the musical! However, award winning, critically acclaimed producer Scott Sanders led the production to 11 Tony Award nominations and produced the inaugural presentation of the musical in September 2004. That's right: the musical The Color Purple turns 10 years old this year! I've seen it quite a few times, and I must admit that when I heard that a musical was made to depict one of the best books and films of the 20th century, I was not at all excited. I know it was Oprah, but given the subject matter of the story, I could not (no, I would not) allow myself to believe that someone—not even Oprah—could be bold enough to tell the story on stage and stay authentic to the book when covering issues such as infanticide, domestic violence, incest, infidelity, racial and religious oppression, patriarchy, misogyny, love, and yes, even same-sex love.
The film became one of my favorites when it premiered in 1985. Like a lot of people, I can quote it line for line, from infamous lines like, "It's gon' rain on yo' head," to more subtle lines like, "See, Daddy. Sinners have souls too." I was 14 years old when the film premiered and since then, I've seen it innumerable times. I didn't read the book, though, until nine years later. Although I had already seen the film many times, it was only then that some of the scenes made sense. For instance, the book helped me better understand the scene where Shug Avery and Miss Celie kiss, as well as one of the last scenes where they appear to live together. The meaning of the kiss was always "fuzzy" to me, but I remember reading the book and saying out loud, "Oh! Now I get it!" It finally clicked! The kiss between Shug and Miss Celie wasn't just endearing (as the film would lead one to believe). It was a kiss of love, as well as a deep intimacy that Shug and Miss Celie were not able to have with men in the patriarchal, misogynistic, and religiously oppressed society of the era. Women were considered property to their husbands and sex, in the absence of love, was in most instances considered an obligation. But Shug and Miss Celie developed a relationship that went beyond the bounds of that obligation and the oppression that being in relationships with men dictated. They discovered a true, genuine, intimate love that both of them had never been privileged to have as the property of men. Today, most call their kind of love same-sex or same-gender love.
When I think about Shug and Celie, I can't help but wonder how their love would be perceived today, particularly in the African-American community. As a society, we've evolved some over the last 10 years in our acceptance of LGBT individuals, with federal laws allowing for marriage equality, job protection and fair housing, to name a few. But, despite advances in LGBT Civil Rights, African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals are often still discriminated against and condemned in African-American communities. There are several factors (most of which were used to victimize Shug and Celie as women) that contribute to the continual perpetuation of homophobia and transphobia within the African-American community, including patriarchal attitudes, misogyny, misinterpretations of biblical Scripture, mis-education and lack of education about our culture that we were forced to abandon during the Diaspora, to name a few. As a licensed mental health clinician, I often explain to my clients and their families that same-sex or same-gender love isn't merely about sex, but intimacy. Many of the women I see who have been married or once identified as heterosexual often cite a deep level of intimacy as a predominant (though not the only) factor in the transition of their heterosexual identity to a lesbian/bisexual identity. Even though many enjoyed sex with men, most did not experience this level of intimacy in their relationships with men. Unfortunately, however, many of my African-American clients have more difficulty than my Caucasian clients, who face the same issue, resolving their lesbian/bisexual identity due to fear of not being accepted and affirmed in the African-American community—the same community that is important to them, in which they hold strong ties, and where they have been accepted when they could not find acceptance elsewhere.
Same-sex or same-gender love is also about love. As I reflect on the 10 year anniversary of the musical The Color Purple, I'm reminded of a question that someone recently asked me: "Why is writing this story so important to you?" Because "The Color Purple" is not just about same-sex love. It's about LOVE. PERIOD. It's about all the many complexities found in love relationships, whether loving ourselves or other people. It's about how a genuine love can be the purpose that gives someone purpose to create or recreate their life's purpose. Perhaps in 1985, Steven Spielberg (director of the film "The Color Purple") and Hollywood felt that America wasn't ready for the "real" story behind Shug's and Miss Celie’s relationship. Quite honestly, I'm not sure that straight Black America was any more ready for the real story when Sanders premiered the musical in 2004. I'm happy to say, however, that Scott Sanders and Oprah Winfrey kept the storyline between these two characters true to the book and many African-Americans who went to see the musical were forced to grapple with their discomfort over the relationship between Shug and Miss Celie, in essence conceding to their homophobia. Not only did these characters share an intimate kiss on stage, the storyline between them was reaffirmed as Shug confessed her love for Miss Celie while begging to allow her, in six months, to come back to Miss Celie after going out on the road with a young man. I will never forget sitting at a 2008 performance (and by now my third performance), second row, center stage and noticing the reflective quietness and tenseness of the predominantly African-American (and likely mostly heterosexual) audience during this scene and the scene of the intimate kiss.
Sanders' and Winfrey's depiction of the book also demonstrates how uplifted a people and a community can be in the midst of attitude and social change, as well as in the affirmation of a peaceful and loving collective and individual existence. By the end of the story, Harpo had broken the cycle of domestic violence and patriarchy as he demonstrated an authentic, respectful and reciprocal love for Sophia. Mister's attitude about women began to change as he took care of his ill granddaughter and tried to make amends to Miss Celie for his abusive treatment of her and for taking away her sister, Nettie. And Miss Celie, a Black same-gender loving woman, owned a successful pants business and lived out her days with her sister, her children and the love of her life, Shug Avery. Their love teaches us that love is respectful. Love is protective. Love is restorative. Love is affirming. Love is healthy...and love is a healing agent. Isn't that the kind of love most of us want? A Shug and Celie kind of love? It's what I want. It's what most of my clients want. The Color Purple is not just about same-sex love. It's about ALL love and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest love stories in history. I would like to thank Scott Sanders and Oprah Winfrey for using their influence and a musical to help the world expand further its view of love, acceptance, and affirmation. Happy 10th birthday!