BWW Interview: Mariah Lyttle of THE COLOR PURPLE at Bass Hall and AT&T Performing Arts Center
BWW Interview: Mariah Lyttle of THE COLOR PURPLE
Newcomer Mariah Lyttle hasn't exactly pounded the New York City pavement quite yet, but it's not a reflection on her motivation or hard work. In fact, the young actress barely crossed the graduation stage before headlining a regional production of THE WIZ, which closed only moments before she booked the coveted role of Celie in the latest THE COLOR PURPLE national tour. While back at home for the holidays with her family, Ms. Lyttle sat down to share how the role has helped her find her voice, and how this classic story inspires hope and faith in audiences of all backgrounds and beliefs.
Mariah Lyttle: Sure! I grew up in the church. You couldn't join the choir until you were 13 in my church, but my pastor found something special in me and let me join at 10. That's where I started singing. I grew up with the movie musical [version of] DREAMGIRLS, and that was my first exposure to musical theatre. In high school, the first musical I did was FOOTLOOSE, and then we did RAGTIME in the spring of my freshman year. That's pretty much when I fell in love with musical theater and decided that it was something that I want to pursue for the rest of my life. And here we are almost 10 years later [laughs]!
Kyle: You just graduated from Ithaca College this year. Talk to me about the speedy transition from school to booking THE COLOR PURPLE.
Mariah: The day after I graduated, I actually flew to Virginia to do THE WIZ with Virginia Repertory Theatre, so I was doing that for the bulk of the summer. In my last 2 weeks there, my agent sent me over the audition notice for THE COLOR PURPLE tour. I did all the material, recorded the sides and the songs, and sent it in. I heard back from my agent the next day. He said, "They want you to come in for a work session when you get back to New York." I was trying not to get my hopes up, because, you know, anything is possible; but when I got back to New York, I went in for the work session, and I worked for about 30 to 45 minutes with the creative team. Literally the next day, I got a call from my agent, and he told me that I got the job while I cried.
Kyle: What a perfectly cliché theatre story!
Mariah: Yeah, I still can't believe it to this day!
Kyle: Not only is THE COLOR PURPLE your first national tour, but you're following in the footsteps of LaChanze, Cynthia Erivo and even Fantasia Barrino. Tell me about discovering and creating your own version of Celie.
Mariah: It's definitely been hard because I look up to these women; it was hard not to do exactly what they have done. I want to pay homage to them, but not copy. That journey has been interesting, but I was able to use their performances and the way they approach the show as a guiding light, but use my own experiences from my personal life to discover Celie.
Kyle: The Color Purple brings attention to many important themes like domestic abuse and rape and eventually becomes a story of faith, hope, and female empowerment. What do you hope audiences learn from this epic story?
Mariah: I think the biggest takeaway that I hope every audience member has is the idea of faith. Like I said earlier, I went to church, and I still go to church. I'm a God-fearing woman, and I'm a Christian, but not everyone believes in the same religion - or religion as a whole - and that's okay. But the idea of faith, I believe, is very universal. It doesn't matter what race you are, what religion you believe in, what background you are from. It's just the idea of believing in something so much so that when it comes to pass, it fulfills you in a way you've never expected. The idea of faith as a whole can be relevant to anybody in any walk of life.
Kyle: The novel The Color Purple has controversially been found on the American Library Association's list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. How important do you feel it is to tell this story without censorship in today's climate?
Mariah: That's a very good question. To be honest, I kind of wonder how much censorship is in what we're going through right now, you know? With the Me Too Movement and whatnot, I feel it would be a disservice to censor this story because it is so relevant to...I'll speak on behalf of women... it's very relevant to certain experiences that we are going through that are coming to light in our society right now. Why hide it? There's just no reason to censor things that people have actually experienced.
Kyle: Celie begins the show as a 14 year old with few reasons to have hope, but finds her voice as she becomes a successful, independent woman. What are some of your favorite moments to bring to life each night?
Mariah: My number one favorite moment is definitely Miss Celie's Pants. It's one of the only upbeat songs Celie gets to sing, and it comes right at the point in her life when things are finally working out for her. You can always turn something negative into something good, and Miss Celie's Pants is her celebratory moment. My second favorite moment would definitely be right before that, the Easter Sunday scene, where she finally uses her voice and tells Mister off and gives him a piece of her mind. It's the first time she's ever spoken back to him, let alone any man, so those are two very empowering and great moments.
Kyle: Now that you've been in her shoes for a few months, what have you personally learned from Celie?
Mariah: I think there's so much actually! I've learned how important my voice is and how much I actually silence myself where I don't need to. I'm learning how I can use my voice to be of service to other people and to myself, just as Celie does in the show. God gave us voices for a reason, and, you know, we have to figure out what it is. This show has helped me gain a better understanding of what my purpose is and what I need to use my voice for.
Kyle: That's a great lesson. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like to share?
Mariah: I'm just so grateful to be sharing this story, as cliché as it sounds, but I really am grateful to be sharing this show with audiences in today's climate.
When I started musical theater, I was the only Black girl in my class. I was the only Black girl in my freshman year of high school class, and again in my freshman year of college. It's incredible to tell a story like this for people like me. I didn't have a lot of people to look up to in my immediate surroundings. There are always a lot of people in the Broadway world, but, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I didn't have a lot of people that looked like me that were doing what I was doing. To have people come up to me after the show and tell me how much I have inspired them - that inspires me. It really is like a cycle, and it just brings me so much joy to be telling this story to people and to be received like that.
Kyle: What an incredible experience. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. I can't wait to catch the show when you reach Dallas-Fort Worth!
Mariah: Thank you so much for this opportunity. It's been a pleasure to talk to you!
THE COLOR PURPLE makes five upcoming Texas tour stops, including San Antonio, Orange, Houston, Fort Worth, and Dallas. Tickets to Fort Worth's Bass Hall (January 5th) can be found at www.BassHall.com. Tickets for Dallas' AT&T Performing Arts Center/Winspear Opera House (January 7-January 12) can be found at www.ATTPAC.com.