Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Color Purple Closes, An Interview with Sheila Walker, Conductor and Musical Director

After two months in San Francisco, The Color Purple is closing December 9, so if you have been waiting to go, if you want to save yourself the price of airfare to Los Angeles, where it’s headed next week, get you tickets now, the show is well worth the discounted $49.50 for all seats in the house. Call (415) 512-7770 or Groups rates are even lower and other discounts might apply so call or drop by the Orpheum theatre box office, 1192 Market Street at 8th Street, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For groups sales call (415) 551-2020. Visit Shows are Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

I love this show. There are so many places where this work touches its audience that I don’t have enough room to share what it meant to me to see Alice Walker’s novel translate so well to the stage musically and lyrically. Where the film did a disservice to the development of characters, such as "Mister" whose rage made them erupt on innocent bystanders like Celie, Nettie’s big sister, was a place I wanted to dwell for the joyful ride into redemption. The Color Purple is the hope we look for when we travel through the fire hoping to emerge free. It’s the Sankofa on the other side of the terror and pain—Maafa.

Rereading Alice Walker’s book, watching the film once more and then seeing the play twice, and I’m hoping one more time before it leaves town, I am captivated by the production—I know these people. They are my family. The cast is so phenomenal, especially Jeanette Bayardelle as "Celie" and Felicia P. Fields as "Sophia," Rufus Bond, Jr. as "Mister" and Stu James as "Harpo." These are two powerful black women, whose characters suffer—Sophia suffers because she is strong and powerful and unlike Celie never bows until beaten almost to death. Then there's Celie whose lost spirit returns home once she realizes her sister Nettie still loves her.

The Color Purple is a story that illustrates the power of love. Love doesn’t hurt its beloveth. Love is the healing balm in Zion. It's the secret weapon characters use to fight injustice; it is what saves several characters' souls and humanizes those whose humanity seems irrevocably lost. I watched in awe the sister conducting just in front of me and then I walked up and stood closer when the finale came and people were on their feet, the cast smiling and singing and waving at us. I stayed at the front of the theatre and observed the orchestra perform—they are exceptionally good, all of them, then listened to the shop talk afterwards before introducing myself to the conductor, Sheila Walker, who said, "Sure," when I asked her if I could interview her later on in the run. We were all set to talk when my family's companion and loved one and friend, Smokey Zakat Sabir died that morning. I still miss her. The house is so empty without her. She is buried under the tree in the back yard. (To read her obituary visit Click “blog.”)

A week or two later Sheila Walker and I spoke about her climb to the top of the game through tenacity and lots of work. Walker’s from Dallas and has been conducting since she was a child, through high school and into college where her degree in music education from the University of North Texas, also includes voice, piano and conducting. Yes, the sister can do it all, like claim the position as musical director and conductor and it was hers.

Wanda Sabir: When I saw you at the play I was so excited to have an opportunity to interview you. There are so few women conductors, particularly of Broadway plays. I don’t know how many African American conductors there are, but I just wanted to know how you did it, and what brings you to this particular production.

Sheila Walker: “Let’s see. I’ve always wanted to conduct. Even as a kid I did a lot of church work. It always seems to start in the church for a lot of African American people. I started very early playing piano and conducting at first junior choirs and later on got to where I was conducting at my school and having the choir director have me assist them. When I got to college, I took conducting classes as well as classical piano and voice there. All those things combined into music education.

“I got into a high school for performing arts and was the choir director and conductor. I still wanted to do musical theatre, so I did it on the side in regional theatre and I worked my way into doing summer stock. That’s where you sort of get that opportunity to go on tour. The first tour I got was out for a year and then I decided to move to New York and was there for about 15 years.

During that time I did a couple of Broadway shows but most of the time I was getting shows and going out on the road and then I got back to Dallas, my home in 2002. Although I went to London to supervise the production of Ragtime there in 2003 and did some other guest artist work. I decided to stay off the road for a bit and in 2006, right after the Tony’s and Rhonda LaChanze Sapp won the award for the role of Celie in “The Color Purple” and I was there to visit her, but I also knew Linda Twine who was the musical director. So I saw the show, saw them and they said, ‘There is going to be a Chicago production of this; you need to get your name in the pot.” I said, ‘Oh I would love to,” because I had seen excerpt of it on the Oprah show and I knew several people I had worked with who were in the show. I said to myself, this is the show I need to do, and my sister said, ‘This is the one you need to claim.’

“My sister Sonja is the muse in my life. She is so supportive. She said, ‘You need to claim that piece.’ I said, that’s the one I want to do. We went to visit New York to talk to Linda and before I knew it she’d called me around Thanksgiving and told me, ‘I need you to send all your information to them. We had a conference call and a little before Christmas I had the job. The wheels started turning at that time. I moved to Chicago at the end of February when we started the rehearsals and from there the show proceeded.

“This is how I got there. It’s kind of in a nutshell. It a long (process), you have to work in the trenches at regional theatres have people put their confidence in you as a musical theatre director. You really do have a big responsibility to the show. After the director leaves you’re still there putting the show together, not only putting it together. If you are the musical director and the conductor you continue to maintain the show. Make notes about the music, keep the orchestra together or whatever type of group you are conducting. In some instances you’re a player conductor. If you have a smaller ensemble. I’ve toured with those kinds of groups too. It’s been everything from a small group of about four or five to a group of about 28-30. And it’s been from Texas all the way to Japan and back. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do what you love doing. That’s my (advice) to everyone. Enjoy what you are doing and you’re do it really well.”

WS: You said your sister told you to claim it. Why did you want this particular show? Was it something to do with this relationship between the two sisters, their relationship?

SW: “Oh yes! You hit right on it,” the conductor says with a smile and laughter in her voice. My sister and I are so close. Every night when I see Nettie coming back to Celie and the music is playing and I’m conducting—the music is so sweeping and it wraps up your emotions, it’s so well done. You see them looking at each other like they haven’t seen each other for years and years. I haven’t been that way with my sister because we see each other whenever we can. There have been times when I lived in New York when there have been months and months before I’d get to see her and it was such a joy. We talk all the time, basically everyday. There are times when we go for a couple of days and she’ll call me and say, ‘What’s the matter, how come you haven’t called me?’

“So I was attracted to that story. The other thing is that, it was intriguing when I heard The Color Purple was becoming a musical I’d read the book, seen the movie, I wondered how they were going to do this. There are such dark elements in this story. Many times you think of musicals as uplifting, delightful. You may have some challenging moments, but this was such a dark story. But, when I was able to see it, I just couldn’t believe it. This was really what it was intended to be, to go to the next level. Certainly the music attracted me to it, more than anything. Meeting the composers: Stephen Bray, Allee Willis, Brenda Russell, it was just a delight. They are as nice as they are talented and says a lot in this business. They’ve gotten so many awards individually and then collectively they have been acknowledged so much for the work that they have done with The Color Purple. I’m just so glad to be a part of the music staff they have worked with this show.”

WS: You’re right the music is really sweeping and you’re right it moves you emotionally all the various stories which are very sad, even though Celie does get through it. Goodness gracious it takes a while to get through it.

SW: “Right. What else can happen to this woman. She does have to spend a long time – it’s to Jeanette Bayardelle’s credit that she shows us a little girl, a young woman and then an older woman. You can see it in the way her body moves. You can see it in the way her voice sounds. You can see it in the makeup they’ve created. All these things create the illusion on stage that makes it believable to the audience. That’s why the story rings so true. It’s so authentic from all those people who have put it together from hair, make-up, costumes, lighting, and the actors themselves and the choreographer and the choreography and of course the composers and the music. Every element, most importantly the direction—Gary Griffin who did the direction, who had the vision to do it. It comes off so well because at this point it’s a well oiled machine.”

WS: I was thinking of the way Jeanette portrays Celie when comes into her power I’m like wow where did that voice come from?!

Sheila laughs in agreement.

WS: When she leans back as if pulling up her roots or chains and tossing off her burdens—then slowly rises, voice coming from a place so far removed from the house where she was a slave to an idea more than a man, that she was unworthy of love.

SW: “I go with her. You don’t know when she’s going to stop, you just get the feel. She let’s you know when she’s going to let that note go. It soars at the very end. The whole piece sets up for that. It shows a lot about her character and its development.

“The mousy kind of sound and at the very beginning she is timid and shy and in the end she is empowered. The song is the 11:00 o’clock number. It shows the empowerment of journey up to then now that she is going to take control of her life. It’s the icing on the cake, Nettie coming back to her at the very end.

“The irony is that the two most important other people in her life, Mister and Shug are instrumental in getting Nettie back and her children too.

“It’s a wonderful story that ties up the loose ends. I think this is why the audience loves it. Everybody has redemption in the end. It shows a bit of redemption and forgiveness and love and that’s why she sings, ‘God is inside me and in everything else,’ at the beginning of the song The Color Purple.’”

WS: It was really nice hearing the song The Color Purple. The purple itself as a color, is a color but it is also a metaphor. Purple as in bruised beyond repair and purple as in lavender and violets, a soothing balm. You’ve got the book and the film which is really pretty to look at, but I was telling a friend of mine that with regards to the characters in the film, Steinberg really wasn’t able to develop them as well on the screen so that the audience knows where Mister comes from. The way he is portrayed in the musical, the play, we don’t linger in the stuff—the pain. We even feel sympathetic about a Mister who is just a bitter man. He’s angry because his dad would not bless his union with Shug, so he married another woman and made her life hell, and then continued doing the same with Celie.

His father came out of enslavement and he wanted his son to do better, so he didn’t get a chance to live his dream. He was mad and he had a right to be angry. He didn’t have a right to ruin Celie’s life though. I don’t even remember that. In the film the father doesn’t have any dignity, so one doesn’t get the same kind of impact when he tells Mister what to do. On stage one can see Mister as a young man trembling at his dad’s feet. It’s the same with Harpo, except Harpo is with the woman he loves which is a key difference.

SW: “That’s so true, as a writer you would think about those things.”

WS: I love the chorus in the form of the Church Ladies.

SW: “They are my Greek Chorus. They keep the story moving and even say a few things we might be thinking or saying as an audience. They are the conscious of everybody else. They say things we might not say out loud, which is why we laugh so hard. And we know church ladies like that even thought they are way out there and they work together as a unit, which is wonderful. Two of them come from Broadway, and already had had the experience of working on the show. The third gal had to work her way into the situation and I’m telling you. It’s like they have always been together. The unfortunate thing is that you work on the road and you do this for a while and people start leaving a show. They do it for a while, after a year, people after giving their notice leave. The road is a tough job.

“But though you loose valuable people, there are always people out there, chomping at the bit to get this opportunity, and with a show this popular and so few all black productions out there for African Americans this is an opportunity to showcase such talent. So though you miss the family, you know other family is coming in as time goes on.”

WS: There are so many black folks working in this production! And there are so many black folks coming to see the show! Black dollars are circulating and flipping multiple times before leaving the community. Maybe in some times, the venues might be owned by African American which keeps the black dollars flipping it even better.

SW: “Yes, yes. I wish the best for this production and I wish it is successful like it has been up to this point you see. I know God has his hand on all of this and it’s a great message and there are great people involved.”

WS: I read some of the reviewers because they’re mostly white men had a little trepidation about going to see the musical, then said the music wasn’t remarkable, that you couldn’t necessarily hum or sing anyone of the songs after you left the theatre, like that of say a Roger and Hamerstein musical. We’re coming to see the play on Tuesday, 27 of us, and then I’m coming again and for my daughter and I this is our second time seeing the play. “Cause we just loved it. It’s so beautiful. It speaks to our hearts. It talks about our people and what’s going on with our people, then and now. It addresses the trauma and the healing and the forgiveness.

SW: “I think you pegged it right when you said, many of the male, Caucasian writers who are reviewing this play may not have a connection to the play because all they see are African Americans in the play and many times they have a tendency, if it doesn’t have a European influence that it is not as good, and they compare it to their own background, their own influences. We don’t see it that way. It’s the difference between somebody seeing it through rose colored glasses or the glass being half-empty of half-full. I understand that people have to review a piece and sometimes people will go to a performance because it has a good review or they’re stay at home because it doesn’t have one. But I think, word-of-mouth is much stronger with this piece than any reviewer can make or break this piece in each city.

“So many people flocked to Chicago to see it from around the country, and that grapevine will travel so that when the show lands in a friend’s neighborhood, they’ll know this is the one to see. I remember when Ragtime was on Broadway. I was a member of Ragtime, but not on Broadway. Prior to Broadway we did LA production. That’s where I met and worked with Brian Stokes Mitchell who was with us until he moved on to Broadway and we went on with our LA company and Vancouver and Chicago. I remember the reviewers, said the same thing that the music wasn’t that outstanding and the lyrics, because you know sometimes they don’t see that story. Ragtime was about Coalhouse Walker was a black protagonist. How many times have you had that in a story. They couldn’t see themselves in it and many times this happens when you have that kind of journalist not looking at the work as a whole and in an objective way.

“I know the music moves people. You can see too many tears falling among those in the audience when I turn around and look when the cast is singing The Color Purple. I don’t pay any attention to those type of comments.”


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