Daryl Reuben Hall balks at the notion of a distinct African-American tradition in the theater, even as he labors to keep that tradition alive. As the director of Stage Aurora Theatrical Company, Hall has overseen more than 70 productions since its inception in 2003. He said the latest effort is by far the most challenging yet.
From almost the moment it was published in 1982, Alice Walker’s classic novel “The Color Purple” has been part of the canon. Estimates vary, but it has reportedly sold 5 to 10 million copies in more than 25 languages. It was, without question, one of the most important pieces of literature in American history, the beginning of a new era in black culture.
The resulting film, directed by Steven Spielberg, was notable for helping launch the acting careers of stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. Released in 1985 and nominated for 11 Oscars, the film won none in what was perceived as a deliberate snub. A similar situation happened 20 years later, when the musical opened on Broadway in 2005. It earned 11 Tony nominations, earning only a single victory in a much more competitive field.
Bringing the musical to Florida offers the men and women of Stage Aurora a chance to give back to the business and the community. Hall went from Raines High School band to the Florida A&M Marching 100. He later transferred to University of Florida, singing in the choir and dabbling in dance before graduating with a degree in architecture. He went to New York City to start a diverse career that included gigs ranging from Disney cruise ships to Radio City Music Hall, as well as a tour of Europe and stints working for Aretha Franklin, Eartha Kitt and Debbie Gibson. “Everything I’ve done to this point has really strengthened me to bring high-quality productions to the city of Jacksonville,” he said.
“I knew I wanted to do ‘The Color Purple,’ ” said Hall, who read the book and watched the movie back in the day, and has seen the Broadway production a half-dozen times. It was a scorching-hot ticket that year, but he had the inside track courtesy of Angela Robinson, a fellow Raines grad and theater buff. “She was the one who really pushed me to go to New York in the first place,” he said.
Robinson was cast as Shug Avery, a role made famous in the film by Margaret Avery. The role is crucial in the musical, because Shug is a singer, and serious chops are required. “One of the main challenges is not to try to copy the film version, to create your own character,” Robinson said. “If you try to copy, it will always look like a copy and not an authentic portrayal of the character.”
Robinson owned the role on Broadway, then toured with it around the country. “The character evolved constantly,” she noted. “The audience, the other actors and my personal growth and development all play a role in the evolution of the character.” Now, as Stage Aurora’s artistic consultant, her input is crucial to ensuring the authenticity of what will be the first licensed production of this material in Florida.
Those who know only the film or the book will be treated to a unique experience. “The audience will recognize a lot of the dialogue,” says Hall, as it stays quite faithful to the story. The musical numbers, however, were composed specifically for the Broadway production (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman), which add a whole new dimension to the narrative.
The show has a cast and crew of more than 40, including the choreography of LaTrisa Harper and vocal direction by John Gripper. Hall cites the costumes, designed by Sandra Levy-Donawa and Valerie Bellamy-Bailey, as being the most tricky, expensive and time-consuming aspect. Hall even reached out to Harlan Penn in New York City to design the sets, a job the former architecture major has always done himself.
“It’s been really quite a journey,” laughed Hall, “and it’s not finished yet.”