I had seen The Color Purple the week it opened on Broadway in December 2005, with LaChanze and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes in the roles of Celie and Shug Avery and they were absolutely wonderful. In fact, both were nominated for the Tony that year and LaChanze won for her performance as Celie. I also saw The Kennedy Center production with Fantasia and Angela Robinson as Celie and Shug Avery, and also gave equally brilliant performances.
But there was something about the performances of Dayna Jarae Dantzler and Taprena Augustine as Celie and Shug Avery that moved me more this time at The National Theatre on opening night. Not only were Dayna and Taprena passionate and vocally brilliant, they were so believable as Celie and Shug. They brought so much well-needed humor to their performances. I felt like I was experiencing this powerful, sad, and then hopeful musical for the very first time. And that’s why I wanted to know more about these incredible performers.
Joel: What is The Color Purple about from the point of view of your characters?
Dayna: The Color Purple is about Celie finding her strength and finding love. She is challenged on many levels regarding love. She knows love from her sister Nettie, but through out her life love lets her down.
Taprena: Shug Avery is the “something different” the story needs. She is stronger and more outspoken than most of the women of her era. She is the type of woman that knows what she wants and knows how to get it. What is also different about Shug is that she has travelled. Her knowledge and experience reaches far beyond the town in Georgia she called home.
Why did you want to play these characters, and how did you prepare to play them?
Dayna: I wanted to play this role because the story and music pulled me in. The music really moves through many different eras and helps evoke the different moods in the show and the time periods. I have read the novel many times and that is how I prepared for this role. I still read the novel from time to time to keep it all fresh.
Taprena: Shug has Spunk! As an actor/singer, there is a lot of substance to this role. There are great songs and great scenes that make it fun to play her on stage. To prepare for this role I read the book and made myself familiar with all the nuance in the story. I also studied Black female singers of that time. I think about what they may have gone through. I use those thoughts to fill out my performance of Shug Avery.
How do you relate to Celie and Shug?
Dayna: I don’t know the hurt Celie experiences – but I do know love. I have a very close relationship with my family, particularly my mother. I think about my mother’s love being taken away from me and it helps me feel what Celie may be feeling.
Taprena: I relate to Shug as a singer coming from a religious family. Both of my grandparents are pastors, so I understand what a departure from her upbringing Shug Avery’s chosen profession is.
What personal experiences did you bring to your performance?
Dayna: I have not had any personal experiences I bring to the stage with this show. I just try to deliver the most honest portrayal of Celie as I can.
Taprena: There is not a particular experience I use for Shug. I know what it is like to be a woman in the entertainment industry and I bring the tenacity I have in my own career to my portrayal of Shug. I also pull some of the strength Shug has into my own life.
Is your performance based on a relative or friend?
Dayna: No it isn’t
Taprena: Not a friend or relative but I pay homage to artists like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters who have paved the way for female singers.
You have 11:00 numbers – ‘I’m Here’ and “Push Da Button”. Tell us what your character is going through as you are singing the song.
Dayna: The song “I’m Here” is Celie’s declaration of power. It is her opportunity to express her ‘AHA! Moment’. The song begins with Celie telling Shug Avery that she doesn’t need her love. Celie then acknowledges all the things she HAS. She has her sister, her house, and her health; but most of all she acknowledges that SHE has strength and she has survived. And most she is thankful for loving herself.
Taprena: “Push Da Button” comes once Shug has been remedied of the ailments that brought her back home. The performance of this song in Harpo’s Juke Joint is Shug’s welcome back to performing, and also her moment to expose Celie to what she has been missing. The great thing about this number is to just tell the story, and have fun!
You both sing the gorgeous duet “What About Love” at the end of the First Act. How has Shug’s and Celie’s relationship changed by the time you sing this duet?
Dayna: “What about Love” is their love song. This is where they turn a corner and Shug’s affection becomes more important to her. Shug becomes Celie’s first true love.
Taprena: Shug has experienced a lot by this point in her life – but the one thing she has not experienced is the love Celie offers. She cannot believe Celie has nursed her back to health despite Shug’s relationship with Mister. It is an unconditional love Shug has not experienced.
What kind of reaction from the audience have you received to this song around the country?
Dayna: So many people know the movie and the relationship between Celie and Shug is really downplayed quite a bit. This relationship and the moments Celie and Shug share are lifted right from the novel. There are some reactions but for the most part the audience is along with us for the journey.
Taprena: Everyone loves the song and the moments in it. It closes Act one on a high note.
You have fantastic voices. Where did you get your vocal training?
Dayna: I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Musical Theatre from University of Michigan. I also found and work with a voice teacher in New York City who helps me grow and maintain my instrument.
Taprena: I have been singing, dancing, and acting since I was a child. I started singing in church and then really honed my skills in college. I am a work in progress.
I heard some men say as they left the show that they were offended by the way the men were portrayed in the show. How do you respond to them?
Taprena: I am not sure why they are offended, because there is a lot of growth and change in the men in this show.
How are you enjoying your stay in DC? Had a chance to visit any of the museums, monuments? How have the DC audiences reacted to the show?
Dayna: I have enjoyed my time in DC. The museums and monuments are amazing. Everyday we are here I think “WOW, I am working amongst all this!” The audiences have been warm and very receptive to the show. Everyone who sees this story loves this story. It is great to see that holds true for DC as well.
Taprena: This city is amazing!!! The audiences have loved the show and I have loved performing for them. I plan to get out and see the sights this week but I am sure it will be a great time. I cannot wait.
Anything weird or crazy happen on the road?
Dayna: During the Easter Dinner scene when Celie finally confronts Mister, people encourage Celie to follow through with going after Mister. Just as I grab the knife to go after him you sometimes hear audience members tell Celie to “do it!” I bet those same people say the same thing when they watch the movie. Everyone wants Celie to triumph!
Taprena: I like to take everything as it comes. That is the beauty of theatre. When something happens it just reminds me to be in the moment and I can really say to myself “What would Shug do?”
Have you enjoyed being on the road and what are and/or have been the biggest joys and challenges so far?
Dayna: I have had a great time bringing The Color Purple to different cities. I had the opportunity to perform The Color Purple in my hometown of Detroit at the Fox Theatre. It was great to be in my hometown, in a theatre I have been to many times and have all my family there. It was amazing to think of how many times I sat in the audience in that very theatre but this time I was on the stage, the leading role, and my family was there to support me. It was a rush!
Taprena: I have had a great time on the road. I stay connected with friends and family as I travel but I also have my ‘Color Purple Family’ as well. I would say the biggest challenge so far is eating healthy. The greatest joy is seeing all the people who come to see the show and are moved by it.
Why do you think The Color Purple still moves audiences to tears so may years after the book and film were written and/or released?
Dayna: The story of The Color Purple is full of heart. If there was ever a moment when someone felt as though they would not endure life’s trails, this story gives you hope.
Taprena: Alice Walker wrote a story that transcends time, every time you read or see the story you discover something new.
What do you want DC audiences to take with them as they leave the National Theatre after seeing The Color Purple?
Dayna: I want everyone to remember the LOVE.
Taprena: The Color Purple is a journey through music. I want audiences to leave owning the power they have within and loving themselves for who they really are. Also, remembering the sense of community and family that love creates.
The Color Purple plays through this Sunday, April 24, 2011 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC.
Carol Chastang’s review of The Color Purple on DC Theatre Scene.
The National Tour’s website.
Listen to an interview with Dayna by PreViews writer Jennifer Pencek.