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Free's Love for the 'The Color Purple'

ED GORDON, host:

The Tony Awards take place this weekend and like many awards shows, the annual ceremony for theatrical arts has a loyal audience. Actor and commentator Kevin Free is one of the many dedicated fans, and while his excitement stems from the overall production of the Tonys, there's a show that's up for 11 nominations that he loves and hates.

Mr. KEVIN FREE (Actor): This Sunday marks the 60th annual Tony Awards celebration honoring excellence on Broadway. It also marks the 20th year in a row since high school that I have not been nominated for an award.

In all fairness to the Tony Awards nominators, I should say that I've only been in New York for 11 years, and in those 11 years, I have never been in a Broadway show. But, as always, I cannot wait to watch the Tony Awards telecast. I have my favorites. There are nominated productions that I love. There are nominated productions that I hate. But there is only one show that I love and hate at the same time.

Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, that show is The Color Purple.

I have followed this show since 2004, when it was produced in Atlanta at the Alliance Theater. I literally followed it. I had a few friends in that production, so I traveled to Atlanta to see them and to put my face in the right place, and my foot on the right toes, to get myself a part when it finally made it to New York. When it arrived on Broadway, and I was again in the audience, I couldn't help but fall in love with the show again.

There are obvious reasons why I love this show. It employs a bunch of black actors who aren't playing slaves. It's bringing a whole bunch of black people to see live theater that wasn't written by Tyler Perry. Now, I ain't knocking Mr. Perry, but like me, he's never been on Broadway.

It's also bringing a bunch of people who aren't black to see black actors onstage not portraying slaves in a show that is so different from standard black theater. How is it different? One: homosexuality. Celie, the protagonist, and Shug Avery, the nightclub singer, have a serious, loving, lesbian relationship, complete with an I Love You Forever song and an I Can't Believe You Left Me song. There's no denying that these two black women, at least for the time that they're together, are big 'ol lesbians. Love it.

Two: It isn't protest theater. Now, don't get me wrong, I love black theater that rails against the mainstream. But The Color Purple makes a statement more about how powerful or comforting or oppressive black folk can be with one another. Love that.

And three: The presence of God in the show. And this one is a biggie. How many black plays have we seen where all the main character needs to get along in life is the love of a good man or woman, and more importantly, Jesus? Not so, in The color Purple. All the characters have a tenuous relationship with God, or at least a surprising one. Shug Avery, the aforementioned lesbian lover of Celie, seems to be the least likely candidate to follow the path of righteousness. But she's the one who challenges Celie when she rejects God.

Even the church ladies of the show sing about the Lord's mysterious ways, only to segue into gossip about Celie and Mr. and Shug Avery. In the end, though, they all find grace, especially Celie. She finds grace as she discovers herself; and in herself, she finds God. A black musical with a new-age mentality.

I love it.

Now, there are other shows this year that are nominated for Tony Awards that I loved. One of them I enjoyed even more than I loved The Color Purple. But I will be rooting for The Color Purple on Sunday, because it gives me hope for my future as a black actor and for black theater, in general. That's why I love it. And I hate it, because I'm not in it.

GORDON: Kevin Free is an actor and acting coach living in New York City.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin R. Free