N’Jameh Camara is playing Nettie in The Color Purple, now concluding its national tour at The Kennedy Center. “Nettie is the younger sister of Celie and looks at her environment and wonders how she can do better and how can she get out of it,” Camara said in our recent interview. “She doesn’t necessarily know what “it” is, but she dives into books and dreams bigger than what is asked of her.”
One of her key lines is, “I wanna know how the world goes. How far is the moon” and while she doesn’t know that she’s describing an astronaut, she knows it’s something she wants to discover.
“It ends up leading her to big dreams,” Camara says. “She still maintains a very beautiful sisterly bond and Nettie is one of the anchors at what keeps Celie alive.”
The national tour of the original production of The Color Purple was the first professional musical Camara every saw, when it stopped in Chicago in 2008.
She has vivid memories of Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams playing Shug Avery and how incredible she was, and the set design that included a porch, and the playfulness of Harpo and Sofia when they were singing “Any Little Thing” on that porch.
“I saw that I was in the south and that even amongst the muck of society, that there was still beauty and playfulness between the couple,” Camara says.
Camara liked what she saw and here we are 10 years later and the actress is starring as Nettie, directed by Tony winner John Doyle with a Grammy-winning score. The Color Purple will play the Kennedy Center from July 31-Aug. 26.
“I was auditioning for several different shows at the time, and last July this role opened up and I auditioned and four days later, I was asked by John Doyle to come in specifically for that role,” she says. “One of the things that popped out from my resume that he asked me about was my work with the Ubuntu Theater Project, which was an Oakland-based theater I helped create their second season of establishment as part of my grad program as UCSD.”
As part of that, Camara wrote and performed a one-woman show about a young Maya Angelou, called Marguerite to Maya. The show details the famed poet’s life before the poetry, when she was a club singer.
Doyle was impressed and cast her in the role. By then, Camara had seen the show a second time on Broadway, so even though she never saw the movie or read Alice Walker’s acclaimed book, she was very clear about who Nettie was.
The Kennedy Center is the last part of the tour, which began in September. During her almost year-long run, Camara has learned a lot about her character and says it’s been a thrill playing her and discovering new nuances about Nettie.
The Color Purple
closes August 26, 2018
Details and tickets
“I enjoy continuing to discover how she and I have things in common. For example, she travels the world, and discovers later in life that she’s a traveler and a global citizen. I would like to think of myself as not only a woman of the United States, but more importantly a citizen of the world,” she says. “Nettie uses her mind to break out of what is given to her as an oppressive U.S. system and she sees what else is there. That ultimately takes her to the continent of Africa and she’s amazed at being among black people and seeing how their society works and functions for them.”
Although this is Camara’s first national tour of a musical, she has toured before with X: or Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation, written by Marcus Gardley, a playwright she had worked with at the Ubuntu Theater; and that show was in rep with Julius Caesar, which she did Off-Broadway.
The best thing about a tour, she notes, is getting to go to different places of the country that weren’t really on her top list of places to go and spreading the beauty of this musical.
“I love being exposed to new cities, small towns and taking this story to people across the U.S., because it really does transcend political and societal structures of how we label people in terms of black, white, gay, straight, bisexual…it doesn’t matter,” she says.
“Alice Walker gets to the heart of what it means to be human when it comes to the qualities of forgiveness, redemption, joy, happiness and having something taken away from you. By exposing this to audience members, I’m hoping we’re doing an act of service, that we’re conduits of empathy.”
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