BWW Interview: Brandon A. Wright of THE COLOR PURPLE National Tour
Brandon A. Wright plays Harpo in THE COLOR PURPLE, originally scheduled to come to DPAC from March 20 to 22. The show is currently postponed due to the virus pandemic; be on the lookout for an announcement with new dates. Audiences may know THE COLOR PURPLE from the 1985 film starring Whoopi Goldberg. The Grammy-winning score brings new life to this Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a woman in the American South rising above all obstacles to love both others and herself. Wright is a graduate of Wayne State University and is originally from Newark, NJ.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
I love telling this story. Believe it or not, I had no interest in theatre until my sophomore year of high school. I went to see a production of "Gem of the Ocean" by August Wilson. It was starring Phylicia Rashad, who I knew from "The Cosby Show." I just went to see her, no preconceived notions about theatre or being an actor. I asked an usher if I could sneak down to a first row seat at intermission.
And I sat down and as the lights went down for Act II, there's a big bright light that comes bursting onstage from stage right and Phylicia walks on stage and I start bawling hysterically. I cried the entire second act and the entire way home. To this day, I cannot tell you why I cried. But that was my moment. I left there knowing that I had to do for someone what she did for me that night.
What did you gain from your training at Wayne State University?
After studying at the New York Conservatory for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, in 2015 I decided to pursue my master's degree and decided to do that at Wayne State University. Training there was rigorous. We were a performance-based grad school program which means we put on a full season of six shows a year. More than the training in the classroom or any sort of book training (as much as one can get as an actor), I was learning how to be an actor every day. I was learning how to get up every day and deal with life and still get on stage for an 8 o'clock curtain and really work the muscle of an actor.
What's it like being on a national tour?
It is lovely and chaotic. You know, it's one of the things that as a young artist, you dream of because it is one of those things that separates the men from the boys in a way. It's very similar for me to that Wayne State experience. Can you get up every day and deal with not knowing what city you're in or what time it is or what your hotel room number is? Can you get onstage and deliver this story again and again? As chaotic as it is, it's just about the most rewarding experience I've ever had in my life.
What are some of your favorite places that you've gotten to visit on the tour?
New Orleans. San Antonio, Texas. Right now, we're in Florida. We've been in a couple of different cities in Florida. It's been great, mainly because it's the first time we've had this kind of weather. So that was an easy win, but it's great here as well.
So let's talk about THE COLOR PURPLE. Can you tell us what it's about?
In a nutshell, it is really a story of hope and triumph. The Color Purple follows Celie through a majority of her life and we meet her as a young woman with no voice really. She's had that taken away from her by the men in her life. Through the course of events, we watch Celie find her voice and her own meaning of hope and triumph. So it's a beautiful story of overcoming the odds and perseverance.
A lot of people are familiar with the movie of The Color Purple. Had you seen it before you were cast?
Oh yes. I think The Color Purple movie is about as staple in the black household as living rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms. You'll always find it somewhere in the house. I saw it as a young kid. But, you know, it's one of those things that you see as a kid and you just don't fully understand all that you're watching. To have been cast in it now as an adult, re-watching it was like "Oh wow, there are things that I completely missed at 12 or 13 years old."
What are some ways that the musical is different from the movie?
So the musical, I believe, is different primarily because we don't have all of the cinematic tricks to help us tell the story. We still have the same task of telling a 40-year story in two hours. (That's the span of the entire story.) But the musical strips everything away that you would normally sort of lean on in the telling of a story like this. What you're left with is just the skeleton of the story.
What that does is it allows the audience to be a part of the storytelling without even knowing it. What you're watching is just a group of actors who are inviting you to take this journey with us. Everything that you don't see that you would normally see in a movie, you get to use your imagination. I think it enriches the experience of this story.
Tell us a bit more about your role.
Oh, Harpo. So Harpo is one of Mister's children that Celie meets when she comes to live with Mister. Harpo eventually marries Sophia and so thematically, Harpo represents the new man. He's very different from his father and his grandfather. But I believe that the importance of Harpo is that he represents things that we should seek to be as men in the fight for women and women's rights, if I can sort of be very broad strokes about it. I enjoy him because I think he is so vibrant. In all of his confusion and his awkwardness, Harpo really has these big ideas about life. He goes for them and that is, in this time period, such a rare quality to find in a man.
He is one of the few bright spots in this story.
My aim isn't to play him as a comedic relief or to make a caricature of him, but it is important to me that we feel him go against the grain and that we feel like he is sort of the new world representation for men. He supports Celie's story and the story of these other women. It's a very interesting track to walk.
How has playing Harpo been so far?
It has been just about every kind of oxymoronic phrase that you can put together. Because he walks such a fine line. He wants so badly to be a man, but he doesn't want to be one of these men. To find the intricacies of that, some nights it terrifies me, some nights it excites me. Some nights, he confuses me!
I walk into the theatre every night dedicated just to listening to him and trusting that if I commit to just listening to him, that he will take me where he's supposed to go. Sometimes I have no idea where that is. But it's been so fulfilling because he requires me to be in the moment every single night more than I've ever had to before. The second that I am not honest in the moment is the second that he goes too far or not far enough. It is just about as wonderful a task as an actor could hope for.
Do you have a favorite number?
One that I'm not in musically is the opening of Act II. We travel to Africa and so the stage is transformed into this beautiful picturesque vision of Africa through Celie's mind. That's just great to watch.
I also love the finale which I am in, just to share this space with everyone. That's something that we don't get to do as a full company until the end of the show. So that moment for me is always special to look around and see everybody.
How would you describe the message of THE COLOR PURPLE?
No matter who you are -- age, gender, status -- there's something that everybody can identify with in this story. The umbrella message is one of hope and giving people hope through identity. Because I think at some point in this story, everybody can see themselves onstage. If you can leave with a sense of "Wow, if Celie or whoever can overcome that, then I can overcome what I'm going through," then I think we've done our jobs.
Why do you think people should come and see THE COLOR PURPLE?
Because it is one of the most human stories. It wasn't written to be a musical and that is to our benefit. It originally was a novel and it was written from the perspective of these characters so that their voices could speak to us. Because that is at the foundation of it, the thematic ideas are still very necessary and relatable and provide us a mirror of society. It shows us how far we've come, but also how far we have to go.
Any advice for young aspiring actors?
I tell the young actors that I come into contact with to always ask yourself what kind of art you want to make. Which is tricky because you don't really know for a while. But I think it's an important question to revisit because it's a tough industry and the further in you go, the more you find that there are so many ways to make art. It's not just about being onstage. My advice would be to constantly check in with yourself about the kind of art that you want to make because you can make art onstage and you can make art from a light booth or a sound booth or from an orchestra or in a classroom. How you make effective art is by being in the lane that you feel led to and not just being in it for fame or any of the extra stuff.
You can follow Brandon A. Wright on Twitter and Instagram. Be sure to catch THE COLOR PURPLE while it's at DPAC. The show is currently postponed due to the virus pandemic; be on the lookout for an announcement with new dates. You can find more information about the show here.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel