Every once in a while we have the opportunity to experience a piece of theatre that not only is a beautiful work of art and technically incredible, but is also deeply moving and makes us think about our lives in a way we haven't before. We have that opportunity beginning tonight when THE COLOR PURPLE opens at the Saenger Theatre.
THE COLOR PURPLE is a story about two sisters torn apart by life's circumstances and focuses on the journey that Celie goes on to find love, happiness, forgiveness, and to realize that she is enough. Actor, writer, and teacher N'Jameh Camara gave me some wonderful insight into why speech and theatre arts are so important, why being involved in every aspect of the arts and not just acting is vital in helping an actor find his/her voice, and why THE COLOR PURPLE, although a revival like many others, stands out from the rest. Keep reading for more!
How did you first become interested in theatre arts?
It started when I was in 8th grade, and a whole bunch of people were auditioning for shows, and I wasn't as interested, but specifically that year they did THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I grew up on a very limited amount of musicals. I didn't know a lot of musicals at all, but I knew this one, and I wanted to be Liesl. I ended up getting cast as Maria, and that is when I started to get affirmations from different family members. And then my freshman year of high school I started to do another musical, again, of my limited musicals that I knew and it was CATS. I was like, "Ok well I know this musical," so I auditioned for that, and then I just kept... the more I did it, I realized, and the more affirmations I got this ended up being the thing I was the most curious about in my life from high school to now. Eventually it lead me to my high school theatre teacher saying, "You should do this." Like... looking at me point blank and saying, "You should do this." I didn't get that from being interested in social studies, and I didn't get that from being interested in soccer, I didn't get that from even being interested in campus ministry. But, it was this specific thing. And so like so many people how much of an impact a high school theatre director can make in your life, I think about that now on this tour. I eventually moved on and I went to undergrad at Loyola University Chicago, and dabbled in theatre as well as other subjects, and again theatre was a consistency. And then I ended up going to grad school for it, and here I am.
You're a performer, but you also do a lot of writing. Tell me about some of those writing projects you've worked on.
Yeah, so the very first thing that I did is a one-woman show about a young Maya Angelou, and it's called MARGUERITE TO MAYA. It's about a 28 year old Maya Angelou. It explores her life before she becomes a well-known poet or before she becomes a poet at all. She's a club singer. That was produced and done at the Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland, California, which is the regional theatre for Oakland, and that's the mission there. Then I went on to do that show at the Eugene O'Neill Tao House in Danville, California as well as the Alameda Juvenile Detention Hall. Right now, I am currently working on a project called The Monologue Project, and it's with different writers... some of them you may know... Dominique Morisseau, Mfoniso Udofia, Lynn Nottage... and we're creating an anthology of monologues for women of the African diaspora for auditions and things like that. So, it's by African American women for African American women.
All of these projects are so different, but they also all relate back to performance and back to theatre. Why do you think it's important for artists to be well-rounded and involved in different areas of the creative process?
I think that it's important, especially for an actor, to know that they are creative and that they don't have to wait for somebody to tell them what to do. They don't have to wait for somebody to give them inspiration of how to be in a room or how to have a voice. I think it's always important for... and I speak as an actor right now because I'm currently acting, my current job is being an actor in THE COLOR PURPLE... I just think it's important to know what you want to say in the world outside of your current job because I believe that is the energy that will carry you to leading a bigger mission in life.
With performing, with writing, you've also taught. Which is amazing going back to the fact that you said your theatre teacher was a big influence for you. What do you enjoy about teaching and why do you think speech or theatre education is important for kids?
I realized that my current population for teaching that I love is undergrads... specifically freshmen and sophomores because they're right at the place where they've realized they like theatre and now are at the point to continue to analyze theatre and analyze language. As they continue to figure out themselves, let's figure out where this text fits into the world, and how does it resonate with you, and why do you think it's a good text. And, they're right at the point where it's like, "Could this be a career for me or not? It's past just the fun of it, and can I be serious about this?" What was the second part of that question?
Why do you think speech and theatre education is important?
Well, I think speech education... just looking at theatre from a speech way... is really important because I think it teaches people how to be grounded in their voice... to deliver, even just technically, how to deliver, how to be effective with what you are saying, and how to make an impact. And then I think theatre education is important in general because I think it's important as a theatre artist to know the history of theatre. What is the tradition that it comes out of? What is being produced? What's not being produced? And, what can I contribute to help something be produced? It's so easy to say, "Well, I'm a musical theatre actor so I'm only going to focus on musical theatre." Or, "I only do opera so I'm only going to focus on operas and operettas." Or, "I only do comedy. I'm only going to focus on SNL, slapstick satire." And, I think that it creates boxes, and we're at an age where we're trying to break down boxes and we're trying to be as inclusive as possible in the performing arts, so we don't have time for individuals to already put themselves in boxes.
So, you guys are in Memphis right now, right?
We are! I've been listening to blues music; I've been listening to some rock and roll. That's part of the fun part about traveling. It's been kind of a musical experience with the different genres that have grown out of the different states that we've gone to.
Yes! And then you come to New Orleans next. It's kind of cool that both of those cities are so heavily rooted in music. Does that make a difference when you perform in a city that has really deep roots in music as opposed to the ones that maybe don't so much?
Well, I'll tell you what as it pertains to THE COLOR PURPLE, it makes musical sense when I hear a certain guitar riff or a blues riff come out in some of our musical score and we are in the state where that musical aesthetic grew out of. It makes the show become so much more alive, and also being in that state makes you realize that you're amongst a community who knows this kind of music, who knows the placement and the riff so you gotta do it right. You gotta make it intentional.
Can you give me a summary of what the show is about?
Yeah, so THE COLOR PURPLE is based off of a novel by Alice Walker, and it surrounds the life of this young woman named Celie... actually her and her sister Nettie, and basically how their life and their current circumstances have ripped them apart. And so how in their individual lives do they find atonement, do they find forgiveness, how do they find community, how do they find love. The character of Celie goes through such a beautiful transformation of finding out how is she enough and how God expresses himself in her life. I'm not giving away anything by saying that, but it's the journey that she takes which is the most important for the audience to pay attention to. It's not necessarily for the transformation, but it's how she gets there.
So you play Nettie, Celie's sister. How does your character fit into this story?
I consider Nettie and Celie to be the love story of this play. When Celie realizes that Nettie was the only person who ever really, genuinely loved her, her first love actually, more than her parents, how losing her has an impact on her faith. Nettie tries her whole... basically for years, for decades to keep Celie alive in her imagination and her memory by writing to her. This takes place in 1930s Putnam County, Georgia where there's no cell phones so all you have to live on is letters and faith that your letters will get to the person that you love.
How do you go about preparing yourself to tell this story eight times a week? It's a pretty emotional story.
Right. So there are different tools that I've learned now that are different from the tools that I needed in the rehearsal process and creating my character. The tools that I have that I stick to especially now, because we've got about five or six months left in the run, sustaining myself is I continue to read books that inspire me as a person, and I continue to watch... thank God for YouTube... I really dive into these Actors Roundtables, these Actors on Actors that Variety Magazine provides... these free educational tools because they continue to help me be inspired to continue to delve into the craft. It's so easy at this point to be like, "Well, I made the choices that I made and so that's what I'm gonna ride on and the same choices I'm gonna make every night." I could do that, but then it becomes boring for me. I plan on taking an acting class when we get to LA because I think that it's just important to be reminded of the craft and why acting is important. It's not ok to just slide along and make the same choices I made the night before.
Tell me about the technical aspects of this show... set, costumes, all of that. What can we expect to see?
Sure. It's a pared down version compared to most musicals that you see on Broadway, and even compared to the original production which was done in 2005. The minimalistic set, the hope is that the audience will use their imagination a lot more because the set and the costumes are not giving them exactly what it looks like to be in Putnam County, Georgia, to be amongst the heat, to be in a church, to be outside. It really is a beautiful, I would say, beige canvas where the audience can then paint the picture, and the music is then highlighted. The music is heightened and you are able to follow the words and the musical score a lot easier when you don't have distraction of set and costume.
I'm just thinking of this now, but I went to Broadway Con a couple of weeks ago, and I went to a panel where they were talking about revivals of shows and re-visiting topics that are maybe a little more difficult for people to swallow, and adjusting things to make it fit into a current time. Why do you think it was so important to revive this story now?
I think that THE COLOR PURPLE, even though it's placed in the 1930s, it's not specifically about the 1930s. THE COLOR PURPLE has beautiful themes... humanistic, transcendental... not transcendental... humanistic... what is the correct word? I want to be very intentional with this. It has themes that speak to the core of what it means to be human no matter what your gender, or your skin color is even though it is told through the lens of African American men and women... specifically African American women. Just like Shakespeare, these stories are able to be told time and time again because they talk about forgiveness, they talk about love, they talk about being enough, they talk about where is God, where is a higher being in the midst of tragedy, and why would it or he or she do this to me. Most importantly, it talks about how do we just come to love and enjoy and see the little things that God has put. Hence, the color purple... the color purple in the field, and let us rejoice and see it. I can't say that that is the same for every musical, and there are some musicals that are very dated and they do talk about a specific period whether they be the 1980s or they talk about the 1920s jazz era or they talk about immigration at a specific time period. But, THE COLOR PURPLE does a very good job of being intentional with what they're talking about, and also being a little bit broad in terms of the values.
It's so interesting to hear different actors talk about the different shows because this show has similar themes to other shows, but it just seems to be so much more cerebral than just here's a nice musical to watch. Which is kind of nice because I feel like more and more people are looking to learn from stories. What is the takeaway from this story? What is the one thing if someone learned anything from this story, what would you want them to have learned?
I think the biggest thing is that everybody has come onto this Earth to do specific tasks and that they are no more and they are no less than the person next to them, and that we are all enough, so what's the problem?
I love that! Is there anything else that you would like to say about the show or anything that you think an audience needs to know before coming to see THE COLOR PURPLE?
Yeah. I would say... I love, Heidi, how you mentioned that the show is a little cerebral. I think that there are some shows out there that show you exactly what this character is going through, and it can be a little bit removed. The character can be a little bit removed from you. But, I think what makes this show cerebral is that even though Celie goes through so much, you think about... you take what she's saying and you think about how that resonates with you or another person that you know. You think about, "How does this apply to my life? How am I enough? How can I be more forgiving?" So all these values that we see... it becomes about, ultimately about us, and whatever an audience member needs that day, whatever they need out of this musical, or whatever they don't think they need they will get. They will be surprised by what it brings out of them