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March 21, 2008

So close to Celie

Jeanette Bayardelle stays healthy for the ‘Color Purple’ lead

Columbus--The Color Purple, originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, was turned into a blockbuster film by Steven Spielberg. That film--which garnered 11 Oscar nominations, winning none--helped in part to create the mega-stardom of Oprah Winfrey who played the inimitable Sofia.

Winfrey in turn has helped bring the third incarnation of The Color Purple, a lush musical, to the Broadway stage.

The show, which closed last month, began a national tour in 2007 with an eight-month stay in Chicago. It will be in Cleveland and Cincinnati in the coming weeks.

The Color Purple is a sweeping tale following the ups and downs of Celie and her sister Nettie as they deal with America in the first half of the 20th century. Celie is abused by several of the men in her life, primarily her stepfather and her husband, simply referred to as Mister. Growing up with seemingly insurmountable insecurities and self-hatred, she comes into her own after being influenced by two strong women--Sofia and Shug Avery.

Shug, who is actually Mister’s mistress, turns her eyes towards Celie and the two have a romantic and sexual relationship that leads Celie to discover her true worth.

Jeanette Bayardelle, who plays the heroine Celie on the road, originated from the Broadway show where she replaced LaChanze, who won a Tony for Best Actress. Bayardelle herself was replaced by American Idol winner Fantasia on the Broadway stage when Bayardelle was picked to lead the national tour.

Bayardelle was playing or understudying eleven other parts when she finally got to play Celie. She said it “felt great to concentrate on one thing.” She is signed to do the tour through August of this year even though it is booked through 2010. Bayardelle said she will decide whether to stay on after her contract is up or move on to something new, especially her upcoming solo CD.

Bayardelle spoke to the Gay People’s Chronicle from Tempe, Arizona, where the show was playing for two weeks after two months in San Francisco and another three in Los Angeles.

Kaizaad Kotwal: What’s the best part of being on the road?

Jeanette Bayardelle: Change. In this industry so many of us are used to constant change. You’re in a new city, a new theater, in a new project so often.

KK: What’s the worst part of being on the road?

JB: Change. You get homesick. You have to pick up and start to move again just when you’re settling into a place, a theater.

KK: What are the challenges in playing Celie that you may not have encountered in other roles?

JB: The challenges are not on stage, they’re off stage. Celie is on stage for almost three hours, so staying healthy, getting sleep and saving my voice are the biggest challenges. Vocally I am a power singer so I am comfortable in the role. This can be stressful for someone who is not a power singer.

KK: Were you aware of the film and the novel before you auditioned for the musical?

JB: It is my favorite movie of all time. You can imagine that when I heard it was going to be made into a Broadway musical I wanted to audition immediately. And then meeting Oprah was the icing on the cake. I can’t watch the movie now because I am so close to Celie. I am her right now. I only read the book once I was in Chicago with the tour.

KK: What are you drawn to in the story?

JB: The sisterhood. I have sisters and this is primarily a story of love, friendship and life.

KK: How is the musical different from the book or the film?

JB: In the film we are not able to see the redemption of Mister.

KK: How is the Shug and Celie love affair treated in the musical?

JB: There’s more of the love story in the musical than in the film and less than in the novel. My interpretation of it is that they were friends and looking for love in different places and they find it with each other. But when Shug leaves Celie for another man it devastates Celie but it also eventually helps her find her inner love, her inner beauty. Their romance is part of the journey of Celie and the play.

KK: What was it like to meet Oprah?

JB: It was great. We were in rehearsals and they announced that they wanted to introduce us to a new producer. When she walked in I was crying and hugging her and I never thought I’d cry when I met Oprah. I thought to myself, “Why are you crying at meeting Oprah?”

KK: Why did you cry?

JB: I don’t really know. Maybe it was a shock and we had been working so hard. It just felt like a great reward.

KK: What sort of producer is she? Does she get very involved or does she step out of the way and let the experts do their work?

JB: She steps out of the way.

KK: After being able to play a great part like Celie, what will it be like to seek out other work?

JB: I hope that more roles are created for African-Americans. There are so many strong singers, strong actresses who need more work.

KK: When it comes time, how will you say goodbye to Celie?

JB: That’s going to be rough. I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe working on my CD, film will help me.

The Color Purple will be at Playhouse Square’s Palace Theater in Cleveland from March 25 to April 13, then head to the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati from April 15 to 29. For more information or to buy tickets, go to


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