At 26, and only a few years out of drama school, Cynthia Erivo is making the sort of London theater splash of which dreams are made. The diminutive powerhouse opened on July 15 at the Menier Chocolate Factory as Celie in director/designer John Doyle’s UK premiere of The Color Purple, and the raves began pouring in within minutes of the tempestuous, foot-stomping opening-night ovation, including a love letter from New York Times critic Ben Brantley. Broadway.com caught up with the effervescent performer during rehearsals to talk acting vs. singing, the advantages of being small, and the degree to which she is following in the steps of Whoopi Goldberg.
Celie in The Color Purple is an extraordinary character: a young African-American woman, raped and beaten as a child, who develops an utterly inspiring sense of herself.
I’ve actually fallen in love with her [laughs]! She is just one of the most honest characters, or people, you could ever hope to come across. She’s unafraid of telling the truth, but she’s never mean; it never comes from a bad place but a place of total honesty, which is something I absolutely adore about her. Through everything, she manages to be really brave and to find love with a woman, and I admire the fact that she’s strong without even knowing that she is.
This must feel like the opportunity of a lifetime.
When I heard the show was coming into town, I was beside myself and thought I would love to be a part of it but I didn’t realize that this was what would happen. I feel very, very lucky.
What’s it like to age with the character, whom we first encounter at 14?
It’s been so interesting finding a way into her and her body and the way she carries herself depending on her age, since the time keeps changing all the way through. It’s as if the audience is watching her grow, which gives me a place to start from. At the top of the show, as you say, she’s 14; a lot of things have happened to Celie that she may not have understood but were probably the norm at the time, and yet she refuses to be sorry for herself and keeps driving the story forward. I love the way she keeps fighting.
On Broadway, the show was big and lavish and in a huge theater [the Broadway]. In London, it is playing a 190-seater and has a new director/design team. Can we expect some differences?
Absolutely! Because we don’t have a proscenium arch, our show is on three sides, and the way John [Doyle] has conceived the production, it’s almost as if we are building the piece from the ground up. We create the set, for instance, which is very different from what was done before. But there would be no point in doing a carbon copy of something that was done elsewhere.
John Doyle is famous for having his cast double as their own orchestra on shows like Sweeney Todd and Company. Is there any of that here?
No. Someone plays the harmonica at one point, which is pretty cool, but apart from that we have a live band.
If Celie were to be given an instrument to play, what might it be?
I feel like she’d be a guitarist, or maybe banjo—something where she could use her hands.
Whoopi Goldberg got an Oscar nomination for playing Celie in Steven Spielberg’s film, and you’ve followed in her footsteps before, as Deloris Van Cartier in the UK tour of Sister Act.
It’s incredible: She seems to have spread her luck into my life. And in 2010, I sang support for Fantasia [a much-acclaimed stage Celie] when she came [to London] to do a gig at the 02 Indigo. I had hardly any time at all to talk with her, but it was amazing to see her live and to be in her presence.
How does Sister Act compare vocally to The Color Purple?
With Sister Act, I had to pay attention to the change in my vocal tone as the show went on, but in Color Purple there are moments where I’m almost crying out, so that’s something new that I have to put on top of my voice. This one doesn’t have as many songs, but when it comes to speaking, it’s a much bigger challenge.
You trained at the classically oriented Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which isn’t something one would necessarily expect of a musical theater leading lady.
That’s a choice I made for myself. I’d been singing since I was five, and I thought when it came to training that it would be good for me to work on my skills as an actress. I think it worked well, and it also means I get to experience different parts of the acting community.
Were musicals part of your study at RADA?
Not as such, but we did have a thing just before we were leaving called “verse and song” where the year comes together to perform. I did “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls and a Maya Angelou poem, and I remember when I finished singing, there was a moment where I felt like, “Yeah!” [Laughs.]
Celie, of course, demands a lot of you as an actress and a singer.
I feel with her as if it’s all come full circle: The role gives me an opportunity to use both of my muscles again.
Tell me about your background. Your surname sounds Italian.
It’s actually Nigerian, which is where both my parents are from, though I grew up in Stockwell, south London. Even a couple of Nigerians have gone, “Your name sounds Italian or Mediterranean”; no one believes me when I tell them where it’s from [laughs].
I love the fact that you’re small in stature but determined and self-possessed, all of which is perfect for Celie.
No one is smaller than I am in my cast at the moment—everyone is taller—which means that I can use that and enjoy being small. It’s really fun, too, that Nicola [Hughes, who plays Celie’s beloved Shug Avery] is tall and statuesque and I’m minute!
The result must really pay dividends by the time you get to Celie’s anthemic 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here.”
It is a surprise, I think, when the power is seen to come from someone so small up against everything that is so much bigger than herself. But after holding back for so long, it’s great that the song is that big. It’s a real payoff for Celie and, I hope, for the audience.