When the musical The Color Purple opens its limited engagement March 9 at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, it won’t have names like Whoopi or Steven Spielberg attached, as it did on Broadway.
It won’t be on a vast stage like the one at the Broadway Theatre where it opened on the Great White Way in 2005 or the one at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles where it played from Dec. 13, 2007 until March 9, 2008.
It won’t have the glitz and glamor associated with the Broadway show, which garnered 11 Tony Award nominations (La Chanze won for best leading actress in a musical) and was “Presented by Oprah Winfrey”, who also starred as Sofia in Spielberg’s 1985 film version that nabbed 11 Academy Award nominations, including best picture (it didn’t win one).
But director Michael Matthews’ intimate staging (there are 64 seats) promises a lot of heart and loads of talent.
Two examples of all that are Cesili Williams and La Toya London, who play Celie and Shug Avery, respectively. The two of them plus a cast of 15 others will bring to life characters that have become fan favorites, ever since the publication of Alice Walker’s Putlizer-winning novel.
“I love the character of Celie,” says Williams. “I love the journey she takes in trying to find who she is. I watched the film when I was a kid. I still watch it when it comes on.”
“I love this show,” says London. She played the role of Nettie in the musical’s national tour from 2007 to 2010, but in this current incarnation she’ll play the town vamp and honky-tonk singer, Shug Avery. “Every performance will be a learning experience.”
The Color Purple, which has a Grammy- nominated score, is a moving, sentimental saga about poor, black women from the Deep South finding their inner strength.
When Walker’s book first came out, the domestic disharmony between Celie and Mister and the perceived lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug was met with some controversy. It was thought the black community and, in particular, the black church would denounce the book and the film. Instead, the book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the film became a box office hit.
Neither Williams nor London would describe the two women as lesbians.
“I feel like Celie has not had a lot of opportunities to be loved and her situation with men has always been aggressive,” explains Williams. “She felt comfortable with Shug, but to be honest, I don’t think she necessarily is a lesbian. I think the book may have made it seem that way, but in my head, I can only work from what is in front of me and from what’s in the script. Celie connects to Shug. But, I think she would connect to anyone who treats her with respect. I don’t think she would turn it away if it was a man. I think she just wanted love.”
“This isn’t a lesbian love story,” says London, who at one time sang in a Christian rock group. “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t focus on the lesbian part of it. It’s about self-discovery. It’s discovering your sexuality as an individual. It could have been a man that helped her discover her sexuality, told her she was beautiful or just been sweet to her. She experienced so many abusive people as far as men, she just happened to find comfort and love with a woman. It’s just a kiss. She doesn’t slobber down. The point is — Celie wasn’t loved by anyone other than her sister. She never experienced that intimacy. If it’s a woman, then we will all just accept that.”
Regardless of one’s beliefs on the subject, the Celebration Theatre is presenting the show because, according to its mission statement, it “is a community of artists dedicated to presenting innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. We endeavor to challenge society’s perception of this community and give a vibrant voice to its evolving identity.”
Cesili & Celie
In the beginning, Celie, the play’s central character, is an oppressed 14-year-old girl. After being subjected to years of abuse and unconscionable servitude, she experiences an awakening that allows her to finally unearth her voice.
Williams, 31, is a seasoned actress who was nominated for best supporting actress by the LA Weekly for her work in (The Blacks A Clown Show) in 2005. She also was part of a best ensemble nomination for Celebration Theatre’s Four. She studied acting at Lincoln College, Illinois State University and CalArts School of Theater, where she received her MFA.
With a wickedly infectious smile, bright eyes and enviable thick, curly dreds cascading to her shoulders, Williams — donned in a bright red top, blue jean leggings, oversized, gold earrings and some funky green sneakers during the interview — will surely have to do some remarkable acting to pull off playing a character who, according to Shug Avery, “sho is ugly.”
To bring authenticity to Celie, Williams puts herself through a process she says helps her to connect to the character. She does Linklater vocal warm-ups, attributed to her one-time vocal coach Kristin Linklater. The Linklater warm-ups consist of getting on the floor, lying on her back, connecting to her breath and having it “drop down in her belly”.
This process before rehearsal is important to Williams, who suffers from asthma. So, it’s vitally important that she learn how to breathe through a performance. After connecting, she goes through articulation and other vocal exercises. When the show opens, she will practice what she learned from Michele Shay at CalArts, who not only directed her in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone but also taught her to sign in to the character.
“What I do is, well, I keep a journal,” says Williams. “I have for years. I sign in asking the spirit of that character to come inside me so I can connect to it. At the end of the performance, I sign out to release them.”
That process has helped Williams find the Celie within herself.
“It’s a heavy role to play and dangerous,” says Williams, who hails from Lynwood, Illinois — where her father Eugene Williams is now in his second term as mayor. “Everyone has an idea of what it should be. If I tell the truth and tell the story, then everything will fall into place.”
While Williams is enjoying developing Celie, she’s still working on shaking the character once rehearsals are over.
“There is a heaviness about playing Celie,” says Williams. “I take her home with me. During the rehearsal process, she’s on me. It’s not easy to shake her. I’m still working on that. It’s a work in progress. I can’t paint my fingernails, but since you don’t see my feet on stage, I painted my toes red. So when I get home I can take my shoes off, I can see the red toes and know I’m Cesili. I can leave Celie at the theater.”
Williams is a serious actor. She’s been honing her craft ever since her mother Darcelle Williams (her first theater teacher and speech coach) didn’t ask, but rather “told” her she was going to replace someone in the school play, Bye Bye Birdie.
“My mother is the principal of Thornwood High School in South Holland Illinois, which is the high school I graduated from,” says Williams. “She needed me to fill in. It was then I got the bug.”
The bug she caught gave Williams an enormous entertainment industry fever. She majored in theater, sang on a cruise ship (she thinks it was a Disney ship) and was the lead vocalist in a local jazz band called Soft Spoken. She also sang with a New Orleans band called Vaud and the Villians at Fais Do Do. She tooled around the industry performing in films and eventually nabbed a recurring role as a waitress on the television comedy, Hot in Cleveland. She recently cast, co-produced and starred in the short film The Donut Shop.
“I love what I do,” says Williams. “It’s a joy to bring characters to life. Michael Matthews is incredible. He is really showing me some things. I’m also learning a lot from La Toya.”
Sitting in an office at Celebration Theatre, London, dressed in a simple white top, gold earrings and jeans, has a smile that lights up the room. Her eyes are intense, but her demeanor is calm and comfortable. When she talks about the show she’s very serious about her intent, but at the same time, it’s understood that she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
She might be short in stature (5’4″), but anyone who watched her perform on American Idol (she was a fourth-place finalist on the third season in 2004), knows London has huge vocal talent. She released her debut album, Love & Life, in September 2005.
However, before landing the role of Nettie in the Broadway production of The Color Purple, she had no formal acting training. She learned on the job. “I’m a new actress,” says London. “I’ve never been to acting classes. Broadway was my first professional acting gig. It was my first major role. LA is just another beast. In Los Angeles, it’s about the acting. Music and dance is nice, but here it’s about the acting. I’ve been thrown into the trenches. I’m learning hands-on. This is a true acting boot camp. I’m also watching Cesili. She is a wonderful actress. She scares me sometimes. She’s so into her role that I get scared. She goes there and loses herself. She teaches me a lot.”
So does director Matthews. “He’s passionate about what he does,” says London. “He wants us to find that back story, get the personality and just embody that person. I thought I could act before I met him. He’s really been making me think about some things. He’s my first true acting coach. He’s bringing the best out of me.”
It would seem the stars were aligned for London to join this production. The 33-year-old hails from San Francisco and Oakland. “I literally just moved here a month ago from Oakland,” says London, who wanted to study the culinary arts and to be closer to the entertainment industry. “The weekend I got here, I got a call saying The Color Purple was going to be here.”
London traveled with the touring company of the Broadway production for three years straight. “It was exhausting,” she says. She also toured with Kim Fields and Angie Stone in the play, Issues: We All Got ‘Em, in 2005, and she starred in the Los Angeles revival of Beehive in 2006. “After The Color Purple tour, I came home and took two years off.”
London’s love affair with singing began at age seven when she sang Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” at her mother’s wedding.
“I had the bug at an early age,” says London. “At age four it was discovered I could sing and hold a note. When I was seven, my mom told me she wanted me to sing at her reception. The love I received confirmed it for me that singing was a safe space.”
Letting Nettie Go
For years London played the sweet, but determined Nettie, the sister of Celie who rejects the unwanted advances of Celie’s brutal husband Mister (played in this production by Michael A. Shepperd) and eventually moves to Africa to become a missionary.
In this latest production, she has to call on her inner seductress to bring to life Shug Avery, a temptress who has no shame in her game.
London is petite and has a laid back personality, much like the character of Nettie. She is certain she can do Shug justice, but she admits it’s a bit of a challenge.
“In order to give her life, I have to think about Shug’s back story,” says London. “She is a woman that just lives her way and doesn’t apologize for things she says or the way she acts. A person who embodies those elements, how do they move, what do they think? That’s the art of acting. How would a person say it? I’m still discovering. I’m a perfectionist. We all have some Shug in us. I want to nail it.”
Now that she’s in Los Angeles, London, who loves to cook Southern comfort food, hopes to become a private chef who plans family meals. She’s keeping all of her options open. One thing for sure, having had success on the stage, she plans to keep her feet firmly planted in the theater.
“Theater shows me the authentic world of acting and performing,” says London. “There is no saying cut, let’s edit or do it over. It’s live and raw. Anything can happen. People have to improv. It tests your capabilities as a performer. I have mad respect for theater.”
“Seeing this show in this intimate theater is going to be a beautiful experience for the audience,” she adds. “I just can’t wait to hear the responses and what their experience was like. They are going to be in the world of The Color Purple along with the characters. I love the intimacy of that.”
The Color Purple, presented by Celebration Theatre. Opens March 9. Plays Thur-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through May 26. Tickets: $34. Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323 957-1884. www.celebrationtheatre.com.
***All The Color Purple production photos by Barry Weiss