The Color Purple musical lead: “Celie is one of those roles I wanted to get my teeth into”

The musical was adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, and the role she’s taken up was once performed by Whoopi Goldberg

The lead actor of The Colour Purple musical, which opens in Birmingham next week, is excited to play the role and Me’sha Bryan, who plays Celie - the lead role which was once played by Whoopi Goldberg on screen, is from the West Midlands.

Any actress who plays Celie has to be a powerhouse performer as there are so many layers to the character. Goldberg won the Golden Globe Awards for her portrayal of the iconic Celie in 1985. The film and musical were adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize winning novel.

The Colour Purple cast (Photography by Manuel Harlan)

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    Wulfrunian actress, Bryan, says it’s funny that Celie is the second Whoopi Goldberg part she’s done. She played Deloris in Sister Act at The National Concert Hall, Dublin previously.

    The musical theatre actor first encountered The Colour Purple when her mother borrowed the DVD from a friend. She said that her mother likes to talk through films and she was doing so while watching it in the living room.

    “When she’s watching them she can’t sit quietly,” she said, adding that her animated mother drew her into the story.

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    “We were all drawn, my dad and my two older brothers and myself, into the living room by just how my mum was reacting since it’s a powerful story. We ended up all settling down and watching it together with her, and we were rooting for the characters,” said she.

    It’s an important story for her not because it is the story of community, female empowerment, and is a black story but also because it’s about somebody fighting through adversity, she added.

    “Even though you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s always hope on the other side, especially in this day and age, where we’ve been in lockdowns and faced COVID. It is quite nice to have a story that’s got some real hope and not just kind of like bubble gum,” she said.

    The story has a balance of light and dark in it, and the actress and production have been mindful of that.

    “We want to tell the story and stay true to the story that Alice Walker has written but we also need lighter moments as well in any piece. We need to find a kind of balance without losing the gravitas within the story. We have the lighter musical moments but the weight that Alice wanted to put into the story still carries through many of the songs,” said the actress.

    Me’sha Bryan

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    She was tested as an actor while playing this role but it was also a dream role. She had to portray different ages ranging from 14 to 50 years old in the show.

    “I’m able to use lots of different colours within my voice and change my character, change my posture. As a black female actor, it’s one of those roles I wanted to get my teeth into,” she said.

    Bryan grew up in a musical Jamaican family and was interested in singing from a young age.

    “When I was growing up, there was music, literally, somebody listening to something different in every room, the kitchen radio was on, my dad would be listening to his own in the front room, and my brothers would be walking around with headphones,” she said.

    She added that her parents and eldest brother are really knowledgeable about music. They would know “who sang what, in what year and what the lyrics are, and who produced it and all of that stuff. So, they really inspired me,” she said.

    Her advice for aspiring actors

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    Aaliyah Zhané (Nettie) and Me’sha Bryan (Celie) - (Photography by Ellie Kurttz)

    For young women of colour who want to become an actor, she shared some great advice from basic to advanced.

    “Work on your craft, work on yourself. These things don’t happen overnight. If you get an audition, you got to know your lines, you got to know your music, you got to be able to be free enough to perform fully and freely in front of the panel,” she said.

    “It is good to go to acting classes, if you can afford them. Some people do a one off class, which could be week-long or hours long, and you get to work on your improv, which is a great thing to do as well.

    “Work on learning lines quickly and sometimes work with the camera. You can learn about other people’s pacing when you meet with other actors who you don’t know. You can’t just learn your lines in a bubble and then be like, um, this is how we’re saying it now.

    “So, get out there and perform with as many people as you can, just pick scenes off the internet, rehearse them with friends, and really let go. You can even put on a play yourself, and invite people to watch you.The more you put yourself out there and let people know what you’re doing, the easier it is going to be, especially these days, with social media and everything,” Bryan said.

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    The Colour Purple runs from 13 - 17 September at Birmingham Hippodrome. You can get tickets here.

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