Purple heart

Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child talks about her role in The Color Purple, and sets us straight about Broadway divas, working for Oprah and why a kiss is just a kiss. By Christopher Piatt 

Oprah doesn’t make Michelle Williams nervous—“I’ve been on that show three times,” she says with the casual wave of a hand. The prospect of playing to sold-out houses at the Cadillac Palace? It doesn’t faze her: “My favorite thing is going to be these matinees for the schoolkids,” she says. But when she recalls the visit that two actors recently made to a rehearsal for The Color Purple, she sits straight, her eyes widen and she speaks in a respectful whisper.

“We’re all in rehearsal, and we see Angela Bassett and (soap opera star) Victoria Rowell—and I watch The Young and the Restless every day—they just walk in like they’re walking in to grab some coffee,” Williams says of the actors, who were in Chicago for a movie shoot (both are friends of Brenda Russell, one of Purple’s composers). “Now mind you, I’m never nervous or starstruck. If it was another singer that came in, I’d go, Oh, that’s just such and such. But two actresses that I adore? I was forgetful. I was flubbing lines. I was sweating. They totally blew my mind by walking in.”

If touring the globe as part of a famous pop group makes you fearless—as it apparently did for 27-year-old Williams, who made up one third of Destiny’s Child—then taking on a principal role in a major stage musical might put a little wide-eyed caution back in you. Williams bubbles with enthusiasm over landing the role of Shug Avery, the sultry blues singer whose relationship with lead character Celie is the show’s controversial centerpiece. But she also admits that to be taken seriously as an actor, she has to rethink her entire stage persona. “I’m used to being able to command the whole stage, to go to the edge of the stage if I want to,” Williams says. “But it’s about having a conversation, so it shouldn’t come off like you’re singing a song.”

Anyone who’s ever rolled his eyes at the American Idol–ization of the Broadway musical (this week former Idol winner Fantasia steps into the role of Celie in the New York production of Purple, while a TV audience–cast production of Grease is underway nearby) may look skeptically at Williams’s Top-40 résumé. But this isn’t her first time treading the boards: She previously appeared on Broadway in the titular role in Aida, a part she stepped into after that show had been running for almost three years. With Purple, Williams is experiencing a full rehearsal process for the first time. “In Destiny’s Child we’d put a tour together in two weeks and put it up,” she says. “We have eight weeks with Color Purple. It’s pressure, but I don’t beat myself up so much, because we’ve got some time.”

The Chicago production of Purple is a homecoming for just about everybody involved. Producer Oprah Winfrey, who copped an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1985 film, can brag that the show is playing in her own backyard. Original Broadway director Gary Griffin and star Felicia Fields return to the city that made their reputations. Meanwhile, Rockford native Williams returns to both family and congregation: The church she grew up attending and first performed in as a child singer has already purchased 300 tickets.

Which raises a question Williams is quick to sidestep: How will the church community respond to a story with a lesbian relationship at its heart? “I know people are going to be waiting for that,” Williams says of the show’s famous first kiss. “But if that’s what you’re waiting on, then you’ve missed the whole thing from the time it began to the time it ends. Shug and Celie, they both have their own journeys and were able to find out what love is supposed to feel like. That you’re not supposed to feel abused.”

The reaction of Chicago audiences lured by Oprah’s brand name, and church groups seeking Purple’s uplifting gospel experience (a demographic that’s key to the show’s success), remains to be seen. But if similar crowds at the Broadway production are any indication, the lesbian factor hardly alienated audiences. The New York production only took a year to recoup its $11 million investment, and much of that business came from church groups with many members who’d never before attended a play.

Above all, Williams is excited to help give her home turf a show featuring an all-black cast in an art form that rarely offers such opportunities. “That is major, for black people to have something to feel proud of,” she says. “We’re in the Cadillac Palace, one of the most beautiful theaters here. Then when you leave from seeing The Color Purple, how proud can you feel because of our accomplishments?”

Proud, but not cocky, as Williams notes her castmates are too entrenched in their work to show egos. “These stories about Broadway divas being catty and snappy? I’ve been in two companies and I’ve never seen it. If they exist, they didn’t show their asses in front of me.”

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