Jeannette Bayardelle (left) and Michelle Williams are among the talented entertainers in the upcoming local production of The Color Purple. Photos courtesy of David Rosenberg.
By Amy Matheny
The producing team of The Color Purple brings the musical nominated for 11 Tony Awards to Oprah's hometown, Chicago, at the beautiful Cadillac Palace Theatre. The Color Purple took Broadway by storm—hailed by critics as 'roof-raising' 'epic' and 'a Broadway hit!' I saw it on Broadway and it is the Must See show of the year! Headlining the Chicago company as Celie is Jeannette Bayardelle who comes directly from the Broadway production, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny's Child, as the gal everyone loves—Shug Avery.
Amy Matheny: What do you miss about Destiny's Child?
Michelle Williams: Just the three of us always being together. You know, it's weird—them not being here. But you meet so many other wonderful people who become your sisters. It's like God always has you in different arenas. Some people have the same two people their whole life, but now we can branch out.
AM: I never thought about this until you just said that, but there's also a triumvirate of three women in this show: Celie, Shug and Sophia.
You recently performed on Broadway in Aida. What is the difference performing in concert and performing in a Broadway show?
MW: Well, I'm trying to get out of the 'whole performing as you're in concert' thing on the Broadway stage, because it's different. You just can't bust out into song in Broadway theater. It has to flow from dialogue. And you can't forget your words on Broadway. Now if you were performing in concert, you could put your mic out at the audience and say, 'Sing' and catch your breath.
AM: What makes the musical, The Color Purple, so successful?
Jeannette Bayardelle: The story itself is universal. And everyone can relate to it—doesn't matter what color you are, what religion you are. Everyone can find a piece of them [ selves ] in that story. And that alone carries it.
AM: What do people say to you when you walk out the stage door?
JB: [ They say ] 'I feel changed. I feel like I can accomplish anything. I want to reconcile with a loved one that I stopped speaking to. I've gained courage to get out of an abusive relationship.' So many different things.
AM: Both of you have a gospel background and I think the point of gospel music … is transformation and connection, connection to something higher and bigger than us, you know. [ And ] that's truly the theme, the message and journey of this play. Do you bring your [ gospel ] roots to this show?
JB: I think so. Like you said … it's [ transformation ] in the work, and it's what we do through our music. We want to bring the love of God to people. And I believe that this show does that—the love of God and the faith in God and hope.
AM: When Celie she sings, 'God is inside me, in everything,' it's such a beautiful message. What impact did the film have on you?
JB: I've watched the film over a hundred times. Unfortunately, I can't really watch it anymore because I'm in it, and it kinda just messes you up. But it was my favorite movie …and I can still quote every line in this show and every line in that movie.
AM: In the musical The Color Purple, Shug and Celie are given focus in a way that the Spielberg Oscar-nominated movie underplayed. The musical acknowledges the full relationship of Celie and Shug as lovers, and as very significant women to each other. Alice Walker has said that that was very important to her. Michelle, who is Shug and what does she see in Celie?
MW: Shug is just this feisty woman who is known to speak her mind a lot. I really think she was misunderstood by a lot of people and by the whole town. Once you really get to know her, really know why she is the way she is, you're like, 'Oh okay, she's not so bad after all.' I mean I could take a few lessons from Shug. Shug acts out sometimes because of things that she lacked growing up, [ and not ] being accepted for who she was by her father. Her father was a preacher. So I can imagine, growing up, [ there was ] this expectation that [ she ] shouldn't be going to the nightclubs, shouldn't be hanging out with all the wrong people…
AM: She was a Memphis girl.
MW: Yeah, I can see Shug on Beale Street hittin' the different juke joints and clubs every single night. But I think that her heart... Like my grandmother would always says, 'She means well.'
AM: How does Celie become changed because of this woman?
JB: I believe that Celie had good seeds planted in her at a young age. She had her sister always telling her that 'you're smart, and I'll teach you and it'll help you and we'll conquer the world.' They had dreams. But when she lost her sister, she lost that. I mean the seeds were still within Celie but she did not have anyone to water them at that point. She went from her father giving her away, to a husband, and then her sister leaving her. So the only influence that Celie has [ is ] Mister … and she didn't even know his name for years.
AM: I love that moment when she learns his name.
JB: He did plant and water bad seeds that maybe she's got from her step dad: 'You're ugly, you're worth nothing, you're nothing without me.' So Shug comes along, and she starts as they develop their relationship … to water the good seeds and starts planting more seeds and watering those. Celie eventually finds her own inner voice and says, 'You know what? I am beautiful. You know what? I am worth something. Wait a minute! I have a voice. I have an opinion'—and that's what Shug helps Celie do. When Celie decides to leave Mister, not only does she decide to leave him, but she [ knows ] 'I'm going to be ok.'
AM: They have written you two one of the most beautiful love duets, What About Love. It's just a beautiful song. It echoes throughout the show. What is it about that song? It's just gotta feel fantastic to sing that song.
JB: It's great singing it, and I feel like it that song depicts the relationship Celie and Shug has throughout the show. Celie starts off [ singing ] , 'Is that me floating away, lifted up to the clouds by a kiss, never felt nothing like this.' I feel like there's a lot of symbolism in that because—yes, the kiss—visually that's what you see. But it's not just a kiss. Celie has never had a relationship with a female outside of her sister. She never had someone who actually cared about what she thought and someone who took time to say to her, 'Girl, you don't let no man talk to you like that.' She never had that type of sisterhood. Her sisterhood she experienced as a child but this was different. Shug came to her when she was low and she [ had given ] up. And Michelle can speak on this further but Shug never had a relationship with a woman...
MW: Her [ relationships ] were all with men.
JB: And the women that she did come in contact with were intimidated by Shug. They didn't like her. But Celie had no motives against Shug. It was authentic, like 'Let me help you with your dress, and let me comb your hair.' That song in my opinion depicts that relationship.
AM: Shug does have these 'A-ha!' moments of ' [ Celie ] you have no idea what you're giving me.'
MW: Definitely. Even in [ the song ] Too Beautiful For Words, Shug says 'Man, if i had an ounce of what you have, I wouldn't have to run around shaking my boobs and waving my booty in front of everybody's face.' But she looks at Celie like you've got so many wonderful qualities. It's normal to look at somebody who's got the glitz and the glamour and [ think ] , they got everything, they gotta be happy. But then she's looking at [ Celie ] wanting what she has.
AM: I think it's beautiful that they find this intimate relationship. Michelle, you're about to release your first solo R&B CD. What do you want it to express about you?
MW: It's my third CD, [ and the ] first R&B [ one ] —the other two were gospel. So this time I'm going into a whole different arena. I went through a period of my life where I said, 'I've got to get it out. I've got to write about it.' So it may not fit the gospel format. My second CD talked about love and relationships and, you know working it out with God, letting him handle some things but … I've still got a huge gospel fan base, so I wouldn't ever do anything to upset them or do anything that is not me, but at the same time I didn't want to be put in a box, either. But I can't go too far from my roots, which was gospel.
AM: You sound like Shug Avery.
The Color Purple runs at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, on April 17-July 22. Tickets for The Color Purple are $28-$85 and are on sale at the Broadway In Chicago Box Offices ( 151 W. Randolph, 24 W. Randolph and 18 W. Monroe ) , Ticketmaster at 312-902-1400, online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com and at all Ticketmaster ticket centers.