South Side native Carla R. Stewart looks to Rihanna when summing up Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel "The Color Purple."
"It's a story about broken people, finding love. Celie and Shug find love in a hopeless place," Stewart said in a paraphrase from Rihanna's mega-hit "We Found Love."
As Shug Avery in the national tour of the musical version of The Color Purple, Stewart knows that story well. Along with co-star Adrianna Hicks ( Celie ), she stars in the production running through July 29 at the Auditorium Theatre.
An instant classic when it was published, The Color Purple went on to become an Oscar-nominated movie and then a Tony-winning musical.
Set primarily in early 20th-century rural Georgia, the plot follows Celie and Shug as they endure and ultimately triumph over all the brutality the Deep South is capable of heaping on impoverished African-American women. Celie is 14 when the show begins, pregnant with her stepfather's child. Shug is a sexually fluid siren capable of bringing all genders and orientations to their knees with her incandescent, unapologetic sexuality.
The women's relationshipa mix of fathoms-deep friendship and sizzling sexual chemistryis part of the plot's backbone. The musical ( book by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray ) features a radiant mix of jazz, blues, slow jams as sweet and hot as simmering molasses and raise-the-rafters gospel stompers.
"I never saw myself playing some so sexy like Shug," Stewart said. "But that essence, that power that Shug taps into when she performs in the juke joints, that showed me the endless possibilities of who I can play and who I can be.
"Shug shows there is beauty in us. No matter what we're told, we have power. We are not weak. We are not small.We do not have to limit ourselves," Stewart said.
Hicks saw The Color Purple in 2008, as a senior at McKinney High School in suburban Dallas. For four years, she'd been the only Black student in the school's musical-theater program.
Hicks went on to study musical theater at the University of Oklahoma and then made a name for herself in Europe, landing gigs in a German production of Sister Act and an Austrian Legally Blonde. She made her Broadway debut in 2014 as part of the Aladdin cast.
Stewart graduated from New York City's American Music and Dramatic Academy and returned to Chicago to start her career. It started slowly. After performing in Congo Square's Black Nativity, Stewart made it through several callbacks for shows at the Goodman, but never got cast.
"I had a friend 'behind the table,' there," Stewart said. "He told me, 'Hey, they really like you. But they're concerned you're too greenthat you don't have enough credits.' "
So Stewart left Chicago and began to rack up credits across the country ( Grease in New Jersey; Ain't Misbehavin' in Florida, Hairspray in Reno ). She did a stint at sea singing on a Disney Cruise, and snagged the plum role of Oda Mae Brown in the national tour of Ghost. But, in 2015, Stewart's mother was dying. She came home.
Her mother's decline coincided with auditions for the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. Stewart briefly thought she'd love to audition, but quickly put the show from her mind. She had no intention of leaving her mother. Her mother, however, had other ideas.
"She told me to make a video and audition with that," Stewart said. "So we got the script. She and my brother read [lines] with me. My mom gave me notes. I sent it off thinking 'nobody is going to watch this thing.' "
Stewart's agent called shortly thereafter. She had an audition. It was scheduled for the same day as her mother's funeral. "I said I couldn't make it, and figured that was that," Stewart said.
After the funeral, the agent called again. The producers still wanted to see her. "I wore the dress to auditions that I'd worn to the funeral. I felt like my mother was watching over me. I still feel that," Stewart said. She was cast in the Broadway show's ensemble, alongside Hicks.
Celie and Shug's journey traverses decades and continents.
For Celie, sex before Shug is nothing but rape and humiliation, and love is something that's largely non-existent. "Celie's story is specific but also universal," Hicks said. "You might not have the same experiences as Celie, but you'll recognize the things she feels."
For Hicks and Stewart, the musical's redemptive arc gives it power and grace.
"Redemption and forgivenessthat's the entire theme to me. We would all love to write some people off. We think that will make us feel better," said Hicks. "But you actually free yourself when you forgive someone. I praise Celie. She's strong enough not to let reprehensible acts control her. There's power in that."
Color Purple runs through Sunday, July 29, at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.; visit BroadwayinChicago.com .
Carla R. Stewart's one-woman show Truth Be Told is at 7 p.m. Monday, July 23, at the Lilydale Progressive Baptist Church, 10706 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15; visit tinyurl.com/y8j2yjgz.