Justice Theater Project @ Clare Hall, St. Francis of Assisi
11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh
Through June 28

There are some verifiably sexy numbers in Justice Theater Project’s The Color Purple. After the weary Harpo (Chase Rivers) and Sofia (Emelia “Me-Me” Cowans) list a litany of chore-day complaints, each salaciously asks the other, “Now, is there anything I can do for you,” in the ribald duet “Any Little Thing.”

Before that, Connie McCoy Rogers’ blues singer, Shug Avery, dispenses wisdom to women (“If you want to light your man on fire, you gotta start it real slow”) and men (“You want your lady racin’ with you, you gotta put her in gear”), in that all-singing, all-dancing blues bacchanal, “Push Da Button.”

With such vivid visions of healthy heterosexuality staged by director Deb Royals, superbly choreographed by Willie Hinton and Kristi Vincent Johnson, we patiently waited for the scenes depicting the clearly redemptive lesbian sexuality between central character Celie (Aya Wallace) and Shug Avery. We are still waiting, and an injustice lingers for as long as we have to wait.

By the midpoint in Alice Walker’s novel, Steven Spielberg’s film and the book of Marsha Norman’s musical, Celie has been all but crushed, for decades, by the men in her life: physically, emotionally and sexually abused by the man she believes to be her father, Pa (an intimidating Charles Sanders), as well as Mister (Phillip Bernard Smith), the man Pa gave her to.

After the distant memories of her sister, Nettie (Carly Prentis Jones), have faded, the first time we see Celie experiencing any pleasure at any other person’s hands is after Shug sobers up and responds to her tender rehabilitative care. For that, Celie receives two kisses. They come at the beginning and end of the duet “What About Love?” (The latter one, on her forehead, had Rogers kissing Wallace’s microphone on Saturday night.)

How remarkably … chaste. It’s a word that rhymes with another appropriate term: erased. For aside from one or two brief hugs or caresses, physical representations of anything outside of heterosexuality appear to have been stripped from this production.

But perhaps Justice Theater Project simply knows its audience. Even displays of affection as miserly as these proved too much for three women in the row ahead of me Saturday night. They verified each other’s distasteful expressions before one said, “whatever.” It’s odd that such bigots would have paid to see a musical whose central character is a lesbian. It’s even odder that the show they came to see minimizes physical evidence of that fact.

The audience was joyous in the church scenes, as an authoritative chorus, directed by Michael Santangelo, gave this show as much adrenaline as the juke joint sequences. But when a character’s lesbian identity is kept nearly as invisible in the most private parts of her life as it is in those public scenes, something large is missing in The Color Purple.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Playing it Straight.”