Dallas — Prior to the 1982 release of The Color Purple, Alice Walker had already experienced success as a published poet and novelist. Those earlier works were eclipsed by this, her third novel and its protagonist, Celie. Two years after The Color Purple was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Literature, Stephen Spielberg produced and directed the film with Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Celie. Alice Walker had become the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer for Literature. For her portrayal of Celie, Whoopi Goldberg won her first Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.
Oprah, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders brought the story to The Broadway Theatre as a musical in 2005 with book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Several national tours followed and a Broadway revival in 2015 which earned the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical, and a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
This national tour of The Color Purple had its official opening Oct. 17, 2017 at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. It opens at the Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, Jan. 24 as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals season.
In the roles of Buster and Bobby is Connecticut native Kyle E. Baird. He talked with TheaterJones about this story and its relevance today.
TheaterJones: How did you become involved in this touring production?
Kyle E. Baird: I auditioned specifically for the tour. I had seen the show on Broadway while they were still in previews. This was the production with Jennifer Hudson. A friend who had worked with the production called me and said “Hey, I have an extra ticket to this show and I really think you should see it.” I remember turning to her during intermission and saying “This is my show. This is it.” I just knew when Act One was done that I was going to be in this show some day.
How does this production differ from the original? What changes were made? Were there any songs added? Or story changes?
The first run on Broadway was very big. One could argue that 2005-2006 was still in that era of musical theatre when everything followed the ‘bigger is better’ idea. John [director John Doyle] stripped away a lot of the excess, the glitter and glamour, some of the dance numbers. As I understand it, his thought was if an element did not have anything to do with Celie’s story specifically, it was up for debate or negotiation. He stripped away until he arrived at what I would call the true essence of the story.
John doesn’t like to describe himself as minimalist, but it is very clear from the moment you sit down to watch, whose journey you are on. It’s Celie’s; her journey is everybody’s journey.
It is interesting that he doesn’t consider himself a minimalist given what you have described.
That explanation came during a moment in rehearsal. He said he had come from very little means, but he still made theater. What we might describe as minimalism, to him was simply using what he had.
Some might describe that as basic theater—good actors, a good script, a bare stage and some chairs.
Yes. Actually, the only thing we use in this production are chairs and we use them in hundreds of different ways. Today is our 100th performance. I still love to take that moment when I’m in a scene, look at my chair as if it were an implement, a farm tool of sorts. I can think today this shovel/chair is going to be like this, or this is the issue that relates to this shovel/chair. In that way I can play with it and be in the moment, which is a really cool task for me as an actor. I do like to play and change because that’s the essence of a play.
Are there children in this production?
No. We portray our younger selves up into adulthood. The focus is not on the age; we are simply the younger version of ourselves. I find that an interesting directorial tactic.
Why do you think this story still resonates so strongly with audiences?
I believe the base is that Alice Walker dreamed up this beautiful story and wrote it impeccably. It holds merit alone that way, the way the people can see themselves in Celie. The book gave voice, a really loud voice, to black women during a time when they were largely underappreciated. Celie is initially downtrodden, becoming triumphant in the end. Shug Avery, who is a completely different version of a woman, is also broken and bruised. Then there is Sofia, the strong one or at least the one who seems to be the strongest. She gets broken down. The Color Purple covers this huge array of femininity. I believe this story has held on because it was beautifully told.
The connection or appeal for women to see this show seems obvious, perhaps more so now given some of our national conversations surrounding women. Why should men see this show? What would you say to a prospective male audience?
I can think of two reasons for men to see this show. First, there is the mirror. To men I might say if you do not understand the #MeToo movement, come look in the mirror and make sure you are not the problem. The second reason is wrapped within the idea that Celie’s journey is everybody’s journey. Anybody who has ever felt ostracized or alone in the world—whether one is a woman, a gay man, or a person dealing with a handicap—one is going through Celie’s journey. If you see yourself in some of her low moments, by the end you will also see yourself just as triumphant as Celie. But if you cannot, you can at least understand through her story that you too can become triumphant.
What would you like audiences to know about you and this role?
Bobby and Buster are two different characters. I play the two characters that lift Celie and Sofia up and put them on a pedestal. I really love having the opportunity to do that. Buster is Sofia’s new boyfriend. In the book, Buster is around for a longer period of time than in the musical. I enter with Sofia who is a strong woman. She leaves for a little bit and returns still strong. Bobby works with Celie later in the show and he has to remind her, as a younger man, that she is beautiful.
Of the audience response, what has been the most surprising or most memorable response for you.
There is a moment at the end of the show when I can take in the audience, I will see 14-year-old little black girls crying, and 74-year-old white men crying. We perform across different states and I see these reactions in every region. In those moments I am reminded that love is love, that we all have struggles, we all have triumphs. It is a recurring moment that says we are one. Those moments will be my strongest memories and takeaways from the show.