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Playhouse brings ‘Purple’ to Powers

Mikayla Moore plays Celie in "The Color Purple," which Youngstown Playhouse will stage at Powers Auditorium. (Staff photo / Andy Gray)

YOUNGSTOWN — Trevail Maurice Smith made good use of the delays in directing “The Color Purple,” which Youngstown Playhouse originally planned to stage 16 months ago.

“It really was a blessing,” he said. “It allowed me to sit and really deal with the things I hadn’t gotten to deal with before, insecurities. This show deals with concepts of God and religion, it deals with gender roles, it deals with abuse, domestic violence, women’s empowerment all of those things and concepts. It’s a lot to try and pack into two-and-a-half hours.

“That has been some of the challenging parts about doing this, trying to stay true to the narrative and present it in a healthy way, so it’s not so triggering to people or it’s triggering but in a way that can soothe them or they feel they can walk out of the theater and be able to face their own trials and tribulations.”

The wait ends Friday when “The Color Purple” opens for a two-weekend run.

Smith’s approach to the work isn’t the only thing that changed in 16 months. The Playhouse now is doing the musical at Powers Auditorium.

The decision originally was made when Ohio’s COVID-19 protocols limited indoor performances to 25 percent capacity, Smith said. The Playhouse seats about 400 people, which would have limited capacity to about 100.

“It’s not worth the $45,000 investment because you won’t make your money back,” he said.

Powers could have accommodated 600 theatergoers per show at 25 percent, which made the show economically feasible. And considering that Smith’s last Playhouse production, 2018’s “Dreamgirls,” sold out its entire run, the theater is hoping those extra seats will be necessary.

“The same week we made the decision, he (Gov. Mike DeWine) said, ‘Hey, you can go to full capacity,” Smith said. “We were like, ‘Oh, shoot.'”

Powers has a bigger stage and a bigger capacity, but it actually has less room in the wings for sets and actors. A different location, one that has other events on its schedule, meant Smith had to start working with his cast on the Playhouse stage, and he and the technical team had to design a production that could be moved to Powers the week of opening. He compared it to directing a touring production.

“Time is really important to mount a musical, and we lose that time because the DeYor has other scheduled events. That’s been the biggest hassle. I have to make sure the show here is in good shape that when we do take it there I’m not worried about the content as much as the logistics … Making sure my duties as a director are fulfilled here before I even get into anything technical.”

“The Color Purple,” featuring a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is based on the best-selling novel by Alice Walker, which also spawned a 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg that received 11 Oscar nominations.

It tells the story of a young African-American woman named Celie and her life in the South in the early / mid-20th century, when she suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse from her father and her husband and finds strength and compassion from some of the other women in her life.

The original Broadway production ran for more than two years and received 10 Tony Award nominations with LaChanze winning for her portrayal of Celie. A 2015 revival earned four Tony nominations and won best revival of a musical and best actress for Cynthia Erivo.

As he did for “Dreamgirls,” Smith needed a large, predominantly African-American cast. But unlike that musical (which was turned into a 2009 hit film starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce and Jamie Foxx), “The Color Purple” isn’t as well-known outside of the theater community, which makes it more of a challenge both for attracting actors and an audience.

Getting actors was not a problem.

“I was so happy with the turnout,” he said. “For two years I was struggling with who’s going to do this show … We had 50-plus audition, 10 more than ‘Dreamgirls,’ so that to me is progress. I was excited about that.”

The cast features Mikayla Moore, Tayja Sims, Arielle T. Green, James Major Burns, Nikita R. Jones, Wayne Bonner III, Garfield Washington Johnson II, Diamond Ford, Martin Charles, Trevail Maurice Smith, Michael A. Cotton, James Ferguson, Cynthia Bryant, Lynette Frost-Brown, Janis Jones, Courtney Bailey, Eric Chevlen, De’Andre Veal, Aliza Patterson, Kristyn Cheatham, Asia Littlejohn and Lanae’ Ferguson.

The creative team includes Mazhorell Johnson, music director; Kiara Jones, choreographer / assistant director; John Pecano, technical director; Jack and Sindy Hanna, scenic designers; Ellen Licitra, lighting designer; Therese Pitzulo, costume designer; Candice Larocca, wig designer; Jacinda Madison, production manager; Jancarlos Lebron, sound designer / engineer; Aaron Graneto, audio technician; Jan Crews, collaborative pianist; Anthony Madison, stage manager; Emelia Sherin, assistant stage manager; Chaunise Bonner, assistant stage manager and follow spot captain; Autumn Joi Ellis, assistant production manager; and Joseph Napier, production engagement manager.

Smith and Joshua William Green, the Playhouse’s artistic director, auditioned for the national tour of “The Color Purple” while Smith was directing and Green was starring in the Playhouse’s production of “Dreamgirls.”

“Now I get a chance to direct the show I didn’t get cast in,” Smith said. “It came full circle for me … It’s a blessing to me. I’m grateful to be here, to be doing it and leading a team again.”

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