Five questions with: Brandon A. Wright, Harpo in ‘The Color Purple’

The Color Purple

Hancher — Friday-Saturday, Jan. 24-25

Chédra Arielle as Sofia; Brandon A. Wright as Harpo. — Jeremy Daniel / ‘The Color Purple’

As the company of the Broadway tour of The Color Purple rehearsed their captivating show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, recently, I had a chance to speak to actor Brandon A. Wright, who plays Harpo, stepson to the show’s lead character, Celie, who falls in love with the independent Sofia and battles with the idea of what a man is.

This production of The Color Purple won a Tony award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2016. The joyous and heartbreaking musical is based on the classic novel by Alice Walker, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which was also immortalized into the 1985 film of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Wright has noticed an array of people in the audience, from those who are familiar with the novel, the musical or the film to those coming into it fresh, with no preconceptions at all.

“Wherever you fall on the spectrum of relativity, it’s worth seeing this show at this moment,” Wright said. “There really is a piece of take-away for every single person and it may not be in the big or popular moments. That’s the beauty of it: If you come with an open heart and mind, you will find your moment, and it will feel as fulfilling as it’s supposed to.”

The original adaptation of the story into a musical hit Broadway in 2005; the revival ran between 2015 and 2017. It was adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The Color Purple revival tour comes to Hancher Auditorium for three performances, Jan. 24-25. Tickets are $50-85.

Company of the National Tour — Jeremy Daniel / ‘The Color Purple’

When were you first acquainted with The Color Purple?

I was introduced to the film early in my childhood. I think, like most black people, when I was watching it as a kid I didn’t really know the fullness of what I was watching. In high school I was introduced to the novel; then, again, i didn’t quite grasp the important thematic pieces at such an early age. It wasn’t actually, believe it or not, until the audition, that I went back to the book and really started to digest and marinate in what was happening in the grand scheme of the story.

You are playing such an iconic role, there’s only been a handful of people who have had the opportunity to play Harpo. What does the role mean to you, and what are you bringing to Harpo that the audiences are going to see?

I’ll tell you what, the hardcore truth is, I was intimidated out of my mind when my manager called and told me I was audtioning for this part. The reason is, I’m not traditionally what Harpos in the past have looked like. You know, coming from Broadway, [there’s] the kind of staple idea that many characters follow. There’s a kind of look for each character, that instantly pops in mind when we think of “Harpo,” when we think of “Sofia,” when we think of “Roxy Hart” — you know, we have this idea because [of what] traditionally the cast looked like. When we think of Harpos in the past, [they] have always been taller than me and smaller than me in girth.

The great thing is, though, this has been a blessing and a curse in my casting. I didn’t really have anything to lean on in terms of my predecessors, but that gave me a lot of liberty to allow Harpo to really speak to me very personally, and for me to discover him on my own. Even though it was intimidating in the beginning, it really has been a blessing in the long run. In my time with him, Harpo has really become, to me, the male voice of hope and change in this world. We get the heavy-handedness and brute masculinity of Old Mister, and Harpo sort of breaks that mold with a vibrancy and youthfulness that really says, “Hey, things are changing.”

That’s really what I came to love about him. He sees the word with a brand new pair of eyes. This story is really about these women and their ability to overcome and triumph, and Harpo really supports this with his vibrancy and outlook on life. I think these audiences will see his joy and exuberance, and hopefully they will love him as much as I do.

Are there any favorite moments in the show that we should be looking out for?

Oh, that’s hard! Even though I’m not in the top of act two, I love the way that opens. It’s called “Africa” and it’s the first time we are out of Georgia, where Seely has grown up. That is a great moment of newness and theater magic that you will only get onstage. Also, it’s going to sound cheesy, but honestly, the finale of the show is such a beautiful but powerful moment. I always look forward to that at the end of the show.

Chédra Arielle as Sofia; Brandon A. Wright as Harpo. — Jeremy Daniel / ‘The Color Purple’

As theater artists, we know the importance of representation and inclusion of the stories and histories we share on stage. What do you think about where theater has come, in this vein, and your work in the show, and what is it we, as theater artists, still need to be doing for representation onstage?

That’s such an important question. I feel like, first of all, the fact that this tour is taking a story that people in parts of this country may not ever come across, that’s the kind of movement that needs to be happening. As far as me personally, I feel like being a part of this is one of the ways I throw my name into the hat of making things better.

Every time I walk off the stage and a young person says “Thank you, I see myself when I see you” — it means something to see another black man or person of color on the stage in this way. Those are the moments that let it sink in.

The most important part is that it’s a collective effort. I can’t change the entire theater community on my own and neither can any one of us. It takes a gang of people committed to bringing stories to parts of the world that might not necessarily get it. It takes the big corporations, the actors, the activists, stage managers — every single one of us — to commit to recreating our perspectives.

I don’t think it’s as big of a task as we make it sometimes. I’m a firm believer that if the commitment is made, God and/or the Universe will work towards that with you. I’m proud to be a part of it.

I hope you dig Iowa City when you come. You’ve been on tour since October — how many cities have you been to so far on tour, and where’s a place you’d love to visit again?

If my memory serves me correctly, we are in city number 24. I’d love to go back to New Orleans, Louisiana (where the tour started), for the food! Dallas or San Antonio, Texas — I loved the River Walk.

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