New Venture production features new BR talent
Celie’s declaration is short and simple, but it is strong enough to make souls tremble.
“I’m here,” she says, in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, The Color Purple. And she speaks the words in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated 1985 film. And she’ll say it again when New Venture Theatre opens the musical version of this story on Thursday, July 19, in Independence Park Theatre.
But before Celie sings her show-stopping song, “I’m Here,” Greg Williams Jr. is taking a little time out to make his own declaration. He’s New Venture Theatre’s founder and managing artistic director, as well as director of this production.
And New Venture Theatre is one of three community theaters in the country granted first rights to perform the musical production of The Color Purple.
“And it’s here,” Williams said.
Here in Baton Rouge.
“It closed on Broadway in 2007, and I’ve been trying to get the rights to it since 2008,” Williams said. “I like to develop a relationship with the agencies, and I let them know early.”
Then, last fall, an agency representative personally called Williams to let him know New Venture had been granted rights to stage the production. The only problem was New Venture’s 2012 season had already been scheduled.
“We were actually going to do Aida this summer,” Williams said. “But once I received this phone call, I knew we were going to do The Color Purple. I met with my staff, and I told them that if they all agreed to it, we would change it. They all agreed. We had to change our entire season for this. It was something we all knew we had to do.”
Williams couldn’t help laughing at this moment, as if reality was finally hitting him. He’s always dreamed of directing this show, and now it’s happening in New Venture’s fifth anniversary season.
“It was a ‘grace of God’ moment,” Williams said. “I remember when we launched New Venture, I told the same people who are with me now, ‘Give me five years.’ Now it’s been five years, and we’re celebrating with The Color Purple.”
And it comes here after playing in Broadway’s The Broadway Theatre from Dec. 1, 2005, to Feb. 24, 2008. That production was produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the character Sofia in Spielberg’s film.
The show features music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman.
Celie is the main character of this story. She starts off as a downtrodden, young, African-American girl who doesn’t see many options in her life. She is 14 and pregnant for the second time. Her father has taken away the second child, as he did the first, and later marries her off to a local farmer named Mister.
Her days are spent taking care of Mister’s children while withstanding Mister’s abuse. God is her only confidant.
Celie eventually refuses to play the victim. The story follows her personal awakening over the course of 40 years, culminating with the realization of, “I am here.”
But Celie’s journey isn’t easy. And those who only know the movie version of Walker’s story may be in for a surprise.
“The musical is closer to the book than the movie was,” Williams said. “In the book, Celie sees Mister in a different light at the end. And Mister sees her differently. That doesn’t happen in the movie.”
“Mister actually falls in love with her,” David Sylvester said.
Sylvester plays Mister in this production. He’s a newcomer to New Venture, as is Tenesha Craig, who plays Celie. In fact, this is the first musical for both, not to mention Craig’s theatrical debut.
Craig has performed on stage before, but never in a play.
“I sing,” Craig said. “But I’ve never been in a play.”
And her first role is Celie in The Color Purple? Wow.
But this is the norm for Williams and New Venture, finding untapped talent, developing it and placing it in leading roles. It’s a risky move for any theatrical company, true, but Williams doesn’t see it that way.
“I am so amazed at the talent I have seen in Baton Rouge these last five years,” Williams said.
A friend told Craig about auditions for The Color Purple. She knew she wanted to be a part of the production and began praying about it.
This is something she already had in common with Celie, because Craig shared her audition plans only with God.
“I believe God is a character in this play,” Williams said. “Celie talks to God in the story, and her story is almost like the New Testament, where Moses is sent out in the wilderness for 50 years.”
Celie does live in a wilderness of sorts, in a life where seemingly there is no love. Mister is cruel to her, her sister Nettie has gone away and everyone else treats her as if she were an object. But things gradually begin changing when Mister’s on-again, off-again lover Shug enters the story. Shug treats Celie as somebody rather than something and later frees Celie from Mister’s grasp.
“For the first time in New Venture’s history, I hired a dramaturg to work with the cast,” Williams said. “She gave them a historical lesson on the time period. She told them how this is the first generation of African Americans after slavery and how they were the first ones to feel like they weren’t owned by anyone.”
Still, this generation also was the first to carve its own path.
“They were growing up by themselves, and they had no one to teach them about life and how to live,” Williams said. “The dramaturg made them relive these moments. We workshopped it, and the cast had to figure out how much food they would need, how they would live. The people of this generation had nowhere to go, and everyone in the cast was crying in the end. I think that’s why this musical is so important. It deals with the truth.”
More than 200 people auditioned for the 40 or so spots in the cast. And who would have thought a newcomer would have landed the role of Celie?
But Craig is here, and Williams knew he wanted her in the role the moment he heard her sing.
“I wanted to push myself, and I’m doing this in The Color Purple,” Craig said. “And I feel connected to Celie.”
Connected not only through Celie’s relationship with God but in how Celie starts out scared and introverted and emerges a power to be reckoned with. That’s not saying Craig is introverted, but she has grown from a theater novice to a powerful stage presence.
“And I connect with Celie,” she said. “I’ve known someone like her, someone who never finished high school and had a child out of wedlock. And I’ve talked to victims of domestic violence in preparation for this role.”
As for Sylvester, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration when preparing to play Mister.
“I felt like I was meeting my father again when I started playing Mister,” he said.
Don’t misunderstand. Sylvester isn’t saying his father is guilty of domestic abuse. He simply sees Mister’s no-nonsense personality in his dad.
“Mister is a hard kind of person,” Sylvester said. “Sometimes we forget about the elements of why people are the way they are. Mister had issues with his father, and as humans, we all have issues that make us feel unworthy. But Mister is an example of what God can do in a person’s life.”
The character also has taught Sylvester a few lessons, as well.
“I have a better understanding of my father now,” he said. “And playing Mister has helped me try to better myself.”
Sylvester is majoring in theater at Southern University, where he was last seen as one of the main characters in Blues for an Alabama Sky. Craig, meantime, teaches at Park Elementary School and works for a nonprofit agency.
And now it’s starting to settle in for both of them, the thought that they are the first actors to play Celie and Mister in a Baton Rouge-based production of this Broadway musical. They are setting the precedent, and with that comes responsibility.
“It can be kind of overwhelming if you think about it,” Sylvester said. “Because we are the first, and we want to do it right.”
“It’s very overwhelming, so I don’t think about it,” Craig added. “I just take it one day at a time.”
Yes, history is being made.
And they are here.
- CAST: Tanesha Craig, Celie; David Sylvester, Mister; Shanna Burris, Shug; Adele Dixon, Ensemble; Aleysia Darby, Female Dancer; Alice Dixon, Church Lady; Amber Smith, Squeak; Angela Perry, Glodene; Brian Jordan, Preacher/Chief; Brionia Gougis, Female Dancer; Chaneyra Valentine, Olivia/Female Dancer; Chris Bush-Jones, Featured Dancer; Dana Jackson, Pit Singer; Gerald Garth, Pa; Henry Harris, Featured Dancer; Hope Landor, Nettie; Howard Hall, Harpo; Infiniti Eaglin, Featured Dancer; Jamal Wade, Featured Dancer; Jeremy Marquis, Ol’ Mister; Jeremy Williams, Featured Dancer; Journe Smith, Young Celie; Kalesha Brown, Ensemble; Ketreon Butler, Adam/Featured Dancer; LaNea Wilkinson, Church Lady; LaNetha Jefferson, Church Lady; Leonard Harris, Featured Dancer; Lester Ross, Ensemble; Lindsey Legros, Featured Dancer; Melanie Jones, Ensemble; Mercedes Harrison, Featured Dancer; Michael Russ, Buster; Natheyon Taylor, Young Harpo; Rosalind Reynard, Pit Singer; Seanre Harding, Ensemble; Tara Winder, Pit Singer; Tremaine Sanders, Church Soloist; Tyquencia Johnson, Sofia; Tyshawn Clark, Grady; Zhwa Ellis, Young Nettie.
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Greg Williams Jr., director; Carolyn Shield, musical director; Renee Chatelain, choreographer; Michael Russ, set designer; Michael Burton, lighting designer; Ashley Self, stage manager; Alvin A. Temple, assistant director/costumer; Dorrian Wilson, costume supervisor; Christopher D. Daniel, production manager.