(Trigger warnings: Sexual violence, domestic abuse and racism.)
The Color Purple is on at the Wales Millennium Centre this month. We caught up with cast member Me’sha Bryan to ask her what it’s been like to be part of such a phenomenal story.
The Color Purple, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, written 40 years ago now, is about the experience of black women in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the themes explored - racial division, sexism and abuse continue to afflict this country. The trauma, pain, hope, resilience and triumph over adversity makes for a powerful story that continues to resonate and must be spoken loudly.
Me’sha Bryan, a cast member, was interviewed by two of our community reporters Andrelina Ramdhun and Shana Parvin Begum, members of Glitter Cymru and Glitter Cymru International (GSI). In discussing race, black history and societal norms, they found themselves exploring how relevant the themes of The Color Purple are today.
As well as being an actor, Me’sha is also a vocal coach, singer and songwriter. Her other lead
roles include ‘Shenzi’ in the Lion King UK tour and ‘Deloris Van Cartier’ in Sister Act at Ireland’s National Concert Hall.
Me’sha also worked at a shelter, with people that had been homeless and victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence in London where she lived for a while. The empathy she developed from this work helped inform her role as ‘Celie’ in the Color Purple.
What drew you to this production?
The Color Purple is an iconic story. The depth, the stretch and breadth of the story is huge, and it’s been on my radar forever.
The musical is well considered, the music is so well composed. There’s nothing in this show that exists just as a filler, the music is there moving the story along. It’s a joy to be a part of this production.
How does it feel to be playing Celie? Have you drawn from any experiences in your own life for the role?
I’m an upbeat character so when Celie goes through her journey and gets through to the happier side it’s good because that’s me anyway.
I’ve never experienced abuse like what Celie has been through but I worked with people who were homeless and victims of sexual abuse, and it was through having conversations with them that I could see how their experiences had broken them and the trauma they’ve been through. I’ve drawn from these experiences and hopefully I’ve done the role justice.
What has been the most challenging part of playing Celie?
It’s the physicality of it. I’ve noticed the tension in my shoulders and voice. I have to think about yogic positions, for example when I’m crying on the floor I think of the cat pose, which gives me the support for my diaphragm, keeps me aligned, gives space to breathe, otherwise I won’t be able to sing properly for my next section.
The play is a mostly black production. What do you think this will bring to a predominantly white theatre industry?
There's a huge range of black personalities within this play. We have strong, ambitious and successful women, a same-sex relationship, the reactions we’ve had to it all has been fantastic.
You mentioned the audiences’ reactions to the play being mostly positive but have you noticed a variation in the way audiences react to the play in different cities?
I’m from Wolverhampton, near Birmingham. Birmingham is a melting pot, with the Windrush generation and influx of Jamaicans to the Midlands so the audience were diverse, very lively and vocal. When I got to Plymouth, for example, my landlady’s daughter, who is of dual heritage, said how glad she was that the show was coming there and she could see people that looked a bit more like her. The only place I’ve heard that was a bit odd was when we did Caroline Or Change in Chichester. After the Q&A, somebody in the audience asked the director “was it difficult directing the black members of the cast?”. The cast members and I were called all kinds of things just walking to the theatre. Those are the places that need to see more black and brown faces. But overall, nothing weird has happened where I felt uncomfortable but it just happens that the towns we’re going to are very white. We need more diversity in theatres, I think that’s just what’s going on here.
What do you think the production’s take home message is, in terms of Black history, joy and identity?
I’m celebrating Black history all year around! You get a month and that’s it when it should be constant. I love the African section, you get to see all the beautiful costumes and it reminds us to be proud of ourselves. The fact that we have people wearing our braids, and we’re introducing them to canerows and seeing all the different hairstyles, it’s beautiful. People need to understand hair more and not just see it as different and be like “let me touch it”. Things are getting better. Just come and watch the show, and see some black and brown faces and not be shocked. We’re talented and can do things too! We’re good at acting, singing and dancing! We’re people, we just look slightly different to you.
The story touches on Queer Joy too. What was it like to show your characters discovering themselves and finding queer joy?
I’m fine kissing another woman, it’s acting. I found it weirder having to kiss my friend on stage. We had processes around intimacy and consent to get through it. For example what parts of the body people are comfortable with being touched.
After everything she’s been through it’s wonderful for Celie to find real love, and the fact that it’s with a woman doesn’t matter.
How do you think the story is relevant today?
We talked about this when working through the script. If more people helped and stood up for Celie she wouldn’t be in the position she was in. It’s like she’s in the slavery block at the beginning when Mister comes to buy her. They’re bartering over her like they’re buying a cow. People in the town allowed this to happen, she’s fourteen. Sofia isn’t having it but people like Celie can’t find the strength within herself to fight. It’s Stockholm syndrome and fear that if I go you will find me. That’s what I found with those women at the shelter where I worked. It takes about seven literal attempts to leave an abusive situation. It’s in those times that you need a strong community around you. They need to know they’re not alone, that they have a voice and that the situation is unacceptable. There are people that care and there are places where you can go to get help and support. That’s where we need to be so it’s not normalised. It shouldn’t have happened ever but especially now, in this day and age.
What would you say to anyone who is thinking about coming to see The Color Purple?
You can’t miss it! If you do, you’ll be really upset with yourself. Everyone in the show is phenomenal and you’ll be talking about it for weeks. We’re going to go on a journey, bring tissues, you’re going to cry!
Find Me’sha! @meshabryan