Based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, a national touring company's production of "The Color Purple" comes to Olympia on Wednesday, bringing the story of Celie, who grows up and moves from a life of suffering to one of triumph and happiness.
Behind the scenes, the career of actor Lee Edward Colston II has taken its own journey from pain to triumph.
Colston – who plays Harpo, Celie’s stepson, in the production – worked as a prison guard before he became a professional actor.
“I was trying to figure out how working as an actor was going to become a reality,” Colston of Philadelphia said in a phone interview last week. “At the end of the day, you have to pay your bills.”
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His father suggested he apply for a job as a guard. And that’s where the story takes a twist.
After four years working in a Pennsylvania prison, Colston was seriously injured when his left hand got caught in a mechanical door.
“It put me on disability,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m out and being paid; I might as well go back to school.’ ”
He studied acting, and although he’s still a little weak on his left side, he’s grateful.
“Looking back, that injury was one of the best things to ever happen to me,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to be liberated and do what I really wanted to do.”
Colston is feeling pretty triumphant about his role in “Purple” as well.
“I grew up on this story,” he said. “This story is as much a part of my family as a family reunion.
“To have this be my first touring production is almost like a dream come true.”
Playing Harpo, a man who learns from his father that the way to control a woman is to beat her, would not seem the most appealing of roles, and Colston is quick to say that he has little in common with the character.
“Harpo is very much a follower,” he said. “I’m a go-getter kind of guy.”
In the play, Harpo’s wife fights back, and in the end, he learns his lesson.
The musical faithfully follows the story of the beloved book. “It really gets down deep into Celie’s complex history,” Colston said.
“The show’s creators have fashioned a bright, shiny and muscular storytelling machine that is above all built for speed,” Ben Brantley wrote in a New York Times review of the 2005 Broadway production. “So much plot, so many years, so many characters to cover in less than three hours. Or, as one of the many vibrant heroines sings, prettily papering over a gap of eight years, ‘So many winters gray and summers blue.’ ”
“Ultimately, it’s a musical about love,” Colston said. “When you leave the theater, you feel like you’ve been washed, like a blockage has been removed.
“At the end of the show, people are laughing and weeping and clapping. They are really joyous.”
And for the actor, being in the production is a joy, too.
“With some musicals, they get kind of old,” he said. “With this one, there’s such a vitality and a vibrant energy, I love getting on stage every night. And I love the people I work with; they’re like a family.”
The Color Purple
What: A national touring production of the Tony-nominated musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, stops in Olympia.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia
Tickets: $60.50-$75.50 for adults, $54.50-$68 for seniors, $30.25-$37.75 for youths
More information: www.washingtoncenter.org