September 14, 2007
Last night I saw The Color Purple, the musical produced by Oprah Winfrey, which is finishing its run in Chicago at the end of this month. I’d been skeptical, frankly, about how Alice Walker’s wrenching and wondrous novel depicting the lives of poor African Americans in the rural south in the first half of the 20th century—a book I’d remembered weeping when I’d read it came out 25 years ago—could be a musical. I never did see the 1985 movie version. But I went because a friend proposed the outing.
I’m so glad I did. And urge you to do so, too, if you get the opportunity. What came through last night was a powerful witness to faith and the transformation that is possible through lives touched by God. Perhaps this came through loud and clear not only because of the performers’ marvelous voices but because I’d spend the afternoon reading In Over Our Heads: Meditations on Grace by William R. White, a pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Madison, Wis. I read with pen in hand and had underlined these sentences: “It is all grace, all gift; we are saved by gift. We can’t do it ourselves, nor can we overcome our self-centeredness by ourselves. God does it for us. All we have to do is trust him.”
Without those words still fresh, would I have even picked up on the small scene in the second act in which the cruel, loathsome and self-loathing “Mr. _” who has lost so much becomes the one who, by mixing a healing root into peanut butter and making a sandwich, actually starts the healing process of one of his young granddaughters—and, so, his own? I may not have. I didn’t remember it, from the book.
Still, from the opening scene on a Sunday morning when the large cast is singing in church to the closing chorus of Amen, God is never far off stage in this show. The famous mention of God’s presence in the often bleak and burdened lives of the people of this story, of course, is the line that gives the title: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And why might God have created purple? So people would notice it “because God just wants to be loved.”
The wonderful thing about what happens on this stage is that these people, all of them, recognize God’s love at work—whether creating purple or transforming a bitter and broken man.