“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” reads the most famous passage in “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1982. “People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
Visitors to the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning will have zero chance of displeasing God when they walk through the doors on Saturday as part of this year’s edition of Carnegie Classics, an annual series of celebratory evenings featuring art, music, performances and food inspired by a famous novel — in this case “The Color Purple.”
The entire building will be awash in purple, that royal color predominant in the decorations such as the paper flowers that will call to mind the opening scene of a young black girl named Celie running through a meadow in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Purple will feature in the costumes, the table settings and even some of the libations, which will include “Patchwork Purple,” a sour blackberry lager made specially for the event by Blue Stallion Brewing Co.
The idea of Carnegie Classics — which began in 2012 with an event devoted to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” continuing in later years with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “1984,” Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and other books — is to enhance the largely private, solitary act of reading by creating a literary experience that’s both public and communal.
“People are reading in private, but the popularity of book groups tells us that they’re yearning to share that experience in some kind of community,” says Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “They don’t want to read it and go on to the next book. They want to read it and then talk about it with other people who’ve also read it. The Carnegie Classics series is kind of the next step.”
When first testing the concept eight years ago, Chethik says, “We wanted to see if Lexington would support a literary art event that had some of the excitement of the performing and visual arts, to see whether it could be entertaining on the same level. Could we draw people inside a novel? And if they had an opportunity, would they want to immerse themselves in a new experience?”
They would and did. The Carnegie Classics series has become the center’s most popular event of the year, with attendance rising to nearly 500 at last year’s “Frankenstein” evening, which included scenes from local playwright Bo List’s stage adaptation featuring actor (and Herald-Leader music writer) Walter Tunis as the Monster.
This year’s “Color Purple” extravaganza will include visual art by LaVon Williams and Frank X. Walker; a display of art quilts from the African-American tradition by University of Kentucky student Brianna Armstrong; an exploration of African spiritual rituals by healer Regina Harris; and a Southern dinner by MiMi’s Kitchen inspired by the novel, including fried chicken and catfish, mashed potatoes, greens, corn pudding, hoecakes and citrus-spiked “church tea.”
Music will be provided by the band Encore, which will evoke Harpo’s Juke Joint, and by members of UK Opera Theatre, who will perform selections from the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” under the direction of Everett McCorvey.
“It’s an incredibly powerful show,” says McCorvey, who saw the original 2005 Broadway production and its Tony Award-winning 2015 revival. “It’s about a lot of difficult things, as every African-American growing up in the South at a time when events like those in the book were taking place is well aware. But it also has that powerful, uplifting message of love, especially between sisters. It’s a story that has to be told.”
While the Carnegie event will not ignore the darkness of Walker’s novel — in which Celie and her sister Nettie confront physical, sexual and psychological violence in Georgia in the 1920s and ’30s — neither will it stint on its celebration of the book’s emotional turn toward redemption.
“The book’s themes of resilience and change seem to reflect where we are as a culture right now,” Chethik says. “Celie goes through a lot, but in the end there’s an understanding that she’s actually a beautiful person — that she deserves to be loved, that she loves, and that she is loved. It’s ultimately a hopeful story, and that’s where I think our zeitgist might be today. We’re living in tough times, but there’s still beauty here.”
Carnegie Classics Presents The Color Purple
When: 7-11 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning, 251 W. Second St., Lexington
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 the day of the event
Info: (859) 254-4175 or carnegiecenterlex.org