When she was eight years old, Alice Walker was sent to live with her grandfather, a recovering alcoholic, and grandmother for a year in rural Georgia. "I really fell in love with them," Walker told New York Times theater reporter Michael Paulson at a TimesTalk held at The New School. "They were so kind, so giving. In the early days, they were terrible, terrible people. So I began to wonder, how could people who were so wonderful, when I knew them, be terrible when I didn't know them? That made me realize there was some reclamation to be done."
Later on in her life, as an adult living in New York City, Walker realized that she "had to show what happened to them and why they were like that," she said of her grandparents. She had to tell the story of how people could move forward, break free from their former selves and change for the better. "I left New York," Walker said. "I left my marriage, and I went to a little place called Boonville, California, and wrote this book."
"This book" is her 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple. The book centers on the story of Celie, an African-American woman living in the South who is married off to an abusive man named simply "Mr.__". She perseveres by writing letters to her sister in Africa, with the hope of one day reuniting with her. The character of Mr.__ is based on Walker's grandfather and how he managed to turn his life around. "He was an alcoholic," Walker said. "To this day, I go to AA meetings because I love to hear the truth of people's lives."
Walker explained how Mr.__'s ruthless and violent behavior was modeled after slave owners. "In order to be men, they need to hold a whip," Walker said, "and it's tragic." She stressed the importance of Mr.__ learning from his past and maturing with age. "That's what age is for. We get older and gain an understanding. Mr. __ begins to listen to women, begins to see where he was wrong."
These themes are being explored in new ways through the musical revival, The Color Purple, which premiered on Broadway last month. "I wasn't sure that the people would do it right," Walker said of the writers and producers who turned the book into a musical. "I owe my change of heart to [producer] Scott Sanders. It was his presence and his sincerity. It didn't feel like a challenge or a risk."
It's risky to turn such material into a musical because of the sensitive topics The Color Purple covers, including physical abuse, sexual assault, and what was once seen as a controversial romantic relationship between the two leading female characters, Celie (Cynthia Erivo, who also starred in the London production) and Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson).
"I was initially disappointed with the way the movie handled the relationship between Shug and Celie," Walker said of Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation of the novel. "I knew they weren't gonna do much with it when [producer] Quincey Jones said 'You know that kiss? Steve is gonna make it very tasteful.'" Fortunately, the musical doesn't shy away from the romance between Celie and Shug. "They show it," Walker said of the relationship. "I like that very much about the musical."
During the TimesTalk, Paulson suggested that Celie and Shug's relationship was a polarizing aspect of the novel. "To whom?" Walker said, adding "Now that we have same sex marriage, I can't imagine what my critics are doing."
Many of Walker's critics at the time of the novel's release were black men who were offended by the portrayal of Mr.__ and saw him as a negative commentary on men within the black community. "The black men who were complaining hadn't read the book," Walker explained. "When I understood that, there was no problem." If they had taken the time to read the book before jumping to criticism, Walker is sure that it would have had a positive impact on them. "I'm so sorry black men didn't read it," she said. "They could've learned a lot about how to relate to women early on. A scene [in The Color Purple] I love is when Celie and Mr.__ are sewing together. It grounds us in our humanity."
While the musical premiered decades after the novel and movie were released, we're still living in a time where we're fighting for more diversity in the media. Walker recounted the first time she showed her mother The Color Purple in theaters. "I took her to the local theater in Georgia," she said. "I wanted it for her and our community, so they could see characters they actually identified with. In movies, there would be maybe one black person in an all white cast, usually bringing in a tray of something. People didn't understand how important it was to see films in which we actually appeared as people."
In the beginning of the TimesTalk, Paulson asked Walker to put into her own words what the The Color Purple is about. She raised an eyebrow. "Do you really want to know?" The audience laughed.
"It's about helping our people understand the God they've inherited is not necessarily the God they need," Walker said. "Nature is God and nature is everywhere you need. I wanted to show how you free yourself from the restrictive ideology you've inherited from your family. To connect with everything around you, you have to rebel against the restrictiveness. Rebellion is close to Godliness."