Towson alums make their mark on 'The Color Purple'

The Baltimore Sun

More than three-quarters of a million people have seen The Color Purple on Broadway since it opened two years ago.

And beginning this month, even more theatergoers will have the opportunity to see Oprah's Winfrey's presentation of The Color Purple, as a touring show will begin its run in Chicago.

The play, based on the 1982 book by Alice Walker, centers on Celie, a black woman in the South in the early 1900s, as she lives through abuse at the hands of family members, explores her sexuality and, ultimately, finds her own strength.

Like the New York show, the Chicago production is expected to generate high public interest. The Broadway show will have the added star power of American Idol winner Fantasia, who is expected to begin playing Celie this month. Michelle Williams, formerly of Destiny's Child, will play Shug Avery in the touring cast. Williams will be joined by American Idol alum Latoya London, who will play Nettie.

Still, there are others in the Broadway production who are worth knowing. Some have ties to the Baltimore area. About this time last year, UniSun introduced readers to former Baltimorean Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, a former Alvin Ailey dancer who made her debut in the Broadway show's ensemble.

Other ensemble members with ties to the area are:

Charles Gray

Charles Gray of Annapolis wrapped up a two-year tour with The Lion King before landing a part in the ensemble and becoming an understudy for the roles of Mister, Ol' Mister and Pa - the most prominent male roles in the production.

"I don't think there's ever been anything that's brought this many black people to Broadway," says Gray, who studied at Towson University.

He estimates the audience is 70 percent black at each show.

"It's wonderful to see [black people] experience it," he said. "They want to share with you and tell you what it's done for them ... I don't think I've ever been in any show that's had that kind of impact."

Gray headed to New York after graduating from Towson in 1982, with only his voice training and a couple of dance classes under his belt. He was not trained in acting. "The acting came with the doing," Gray says.

He's had roles in the Broadway production of Grease and the touring productions of Five Guys Named Moe, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Riverdance. He's also done some television, including Law and Order: CI and Law and Order: SVU.

Kemba Shannon

Kemba Shannon joined the cast about a year ago, but she was hesitant at first about signing on. She and her boyfriend had researched the show's early reviews in 2005. "Almost every [article] we looked up was negative," she says.

The Baltimore native had been offered a swing part, filling in for the dancers and one of the vocalists when needed.

She was living in California and had just opened up a Beverly Hills dance studio when she packed up to move east to be in the show. Her friends would run the studio.

"I sat and watched the show and I couldn't believe how incredible it was," Shannon says. "I was thinking, 'What are these critics talking about?' "

Shannon's theater credits include The Lion King and the national tour of Aida. She graduated from Towson University in 1997 with a bachelor's of fine arts degree.

Latrisa Coleman

Latrisa Coleman, who graduated from Towson University about 10 years ago, describes her experience in the show as mind-blowing.

"This whole thing is kind of surreal for me and for a lot of people," says Coleman, who is a native of Fort Pierce, Fla.

She has starred in Broadway's The Lion King and the off-Broadway showing of Chicago. She has also danced with the Alvin Ailey school and Baltimore Dance Theater, among others.

"When I look in the audience," Coleman says, "I see us, and I love that feeling. Our people are coming to Broadway in busloads."

She is hoping the show will help bring more shows to Broadway that will hire black actors.

"Even with our show, our show has an all-black cast because the material requires that," Coleman says. "We're praying for other shows to come to Broadway that we can actually be cast in."

Making the green

Since its 2005 Broadway opening, The Color Purple has grossed more than $60 million and has been seen by more than 750,000 people, the highest attendance of any Broadway production for the 2005-2006 season.

Cast members work six days a week with one week off every six months.

The touring show of The Color Purple will include an entirely new cast, the show's publicist says. Other than Chicago, tour spots have not been announced.

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