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Civic Theatre production features first all-Black ensemble in 30 years

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When “The Color Purple” premieres at 7 p.m. Oct. 8, it will mark the first time in three decades that an all-Black ensemble put on a show at Carmel’s Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.

The musical centers on Celie, a 14-year-old girl living in the Southern United States in the 1900s. Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name, “The Color Purple” deals with sexual and physical violence, as well as racial oppression. With 10 performances running through Oct. 23, Bridgette Ludlow said the piece never loses its edge, but that’s a benefit for both the performers and the audience.  

“It never gets easy, because you’re always finding something new in the script,” Ludlow said. “Changes in how you’re delivering it, changes in the emotions you’re feeling from whoever is watching. … You’re constantly discovering things about the show and yourself.”

Jonathon Studdard, who plays the preacher and Ol’ Mister in the musical, said the show and the dialogue it inspires may be difficult, at times, to process, but it’s worth it in the long run.

“These conversations are not comfortable for anyone,” Studdard said. “This is not a feel-good story. You’re not going to leave the theater and be like ‘Oh, that was fun.’ But the impact of these conversations is huge. … It is a beautiful, redeeming story, you do feel good at the end, but there are definitely moments for sure that are heavy, but it’s important to see.”

Beyond the trauma that weaves throughout the musical, Ludlow said it’s important for audiences to see the “strength, beauty and triumph” of African Americans, and to take what they learn from “The Color Purple” and apply it to their day-to-day lives.

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After last summer’s protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated existing disparities around the country, Civic Theatre artistic director Michael J. Lasley said bringing “The Color Purple” to Carmel was an important step in continuing difficult but necessary conversations. By putting on a performance written by Black people about Black people, Lasley said audiences can recognize the problems that exist while simultaneously find what unites us as humans.

AshLee Baskin, who plays Shug Avery in the musical, said the script gives Black actors the opportunity to play a wide range of characters, as opposed to the common caricature of Black people typically portrayed in popular media.

“In this show, you get to be the villain, the hero and everything in between,” Baskin said. “You truly have the range of the human experience. … This story speaks to the human experience, whether you’re white, Black, poor or you come from means. You’ll find something that resonates with you in this.”

It’s been Lasley’s goal for years to increase opportunities for performers of color. While Studdard said no organization is exactly where they need to be in terms of diversity and inclusion, all three performers said Civic Theatre is doing its part to bridge the gaps. Notably, the theater bought brown mic cords for each ensemble member to blend in with their skin tone, something Ludlow said she’d never seen before.

“It’s one thing to say you’re going to include everyone, it’s another thing completely to actually do it,” Ludlow said. “Even something so small as a mic cord being the right shade for a Black actor means so much.”

While all three performers agree there are many takeaways an audience member could have from “The Color Purple,” Baskin hopes it encourages inner reflection and more widespread conversations about what it means to be an American.

“Grace and space is my mantra for 2021,” Baskin said. “Having the grace to understand who you are and extending that grace and some space to other people as they’re figuring that out themselves. … No one in this country comes out unscathed from the effects of systemic racism, oppression and slavery. … We can all learn from this. It’s important to have your own space sometimes to work things out, but we have to understand that we all do living in this country together, and at some point, we gotta figure that out, too.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or by email at breannac@indyrecorder.com Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

COVID-19 precautions

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre requires all guests over the age of 12 to have either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from the last 72 hours. Guests over the age of 3 are required to wear masks when not actively eating or drinking.

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