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The Color Purple: Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks, and Cynthia Erivo roundtable

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Ruven Afanador

This December, an Oscar winner, a TV inmate, and a British newcomer will walk onto a near-empty stage, and what will emerge is a stripped-down, but no less loaded, revival of the musical The Color Purple — and, with it, three newly-minted Broadway stars.

The stage adaptation of the seminal Alice Walker novel returns to New York 10 years after its initial arrival, a perhaps overwhelming debut production that lost the story’s discourse in the stage magic. Director John Doyle’s revival was a hit in London for its bare-bones 2013 production, leaving more space for audiences to connect with the story’s leads. Here, they’re played by Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson, Orange Is the New Black star Danielle Brooks, and the London production’s star, Cynthia Erivo.

EW sat down with all three women during rehearsals to discuss their careers, their shared Broadway debut, and their relationship to this classic American story.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Timing-wise, where does this debut land for you?

DANIELLE BROOKS: I couldn’t have done this before Orange Is the New Black. Orange gave me the confidence to get to where I am. I’ve been out of Juilliard for almost four years now, and I’ve auditioned for a lot of Broadway shows, and I think God has a funny way of saying, “No, no, no, no, no,” because this is the one that you need to be making your Broadway debut in. So I’m grateful for the no’s.

JENNIFER HUDSON: I always said maybe when I got to 35, I’d be ready to do theater. It’s a year earlier, but it’s perfect. I wanted to be more stationary and focused, because this is something you can’t half-ass. I didn’t want anything else to be in the way. Five years ago…I don’t know. There’s still a lot going on now, but I want to focus on just this, and it feels right.

CYNTHIA ERIVO: It also seems so special to me how all three of our timelines have converged. We’re going on the same journey at the same time — and if one needs help, then there’s the other two there to pick her up.

What are you counting on each other for the most?

BROOKS: All of it. For myself, I’m juggling a lot, trying to do Orange and Color Purple at the same time, and they’ve been so gracious with being there for me, even if they don’t even know it.

ERIVO: The role that I’m playing in this is super heavy, and there are times when my head will be literally spinning, and both of them don’t need me to say anything to know that’s what’s going on. And I’ll get a big hug from this one [gestures to Brooksor a ‘Oh, child’ from this one [puts hand on Hudson’s shoulder], and it helps you keep going.

HUDSON: We’re all going through it together, and somehow by knowing that, it helps us help each other. Once we came together, we never parted. We are a unit. We are a family.

BROOKS: And the piece is about sisterhood, so how can you not bond with two other sisters on a very similar path of doing their first Broadway show in one of the most American classic pieces?

What makes this show so special to be the one to make your debut in?

ERIVO: I was 15 and I saw the film, and I read the book after. I didn’t see the Broadway show before I did the London production. Ever since London, it’s changed my life, and it seems to continue to change my life. And now I’m here, and it’s changing my life again. There’s a thing called kismet. I feel like this show has that for me.

HUDSON: It’s an honor to be a part of an American classic that’s been dear to all of us in some way. We can all relate to the characters in some way. I had never imagined myself in it, but I also couldn’t imagine thinking of a better show to make my Broadway debut in.

BROOKS: It’s so tied into why I became an actress, and that’s because I saw the original when I was 15, which was 10 years ago. It was my first Broadway show, and my dad took me, all the way from South Carolina. The theater was so magical to me. It was so transformative to see people on the stage who had the same skin tone as myself. And so now, I could not believe it was coming full circle, the thing that made me want to be an actor and provoke the same thing that [original stars] LaChanze and Felicia P. Fields did for me, into another young chocolate girl.

HUDSON: Felicia Fields was in my first play, ever. Big River, when I was 19 years old, and here you all are talking about her. It’s full circle everywhere I turn.

Given what The Color Purple says about race, gender, and sexuality, where does the show slot into 2015?

HUDSON: Something like this is timeless, and it’s always needed. It transcends. When something has meaning and substance and truth, it can sit anywhere.

ERIVO: We might be in costumes that are from way back, but in 2015 these things are still happening, and so to see women come through serious adversities… you’re not being forced to feel sympathetic. You’re watching them do the work to come through something, helping each other get to a good place, and what’s wonderful is it allows people in the here and now to know it’s possible.

BROOKS: I hope it really does change the way we view musicals in a way that I think Hamilton has done in 2015.

HUDSON: We sit in rehearsals a lot even when it’s not [our scenes] because it’s just that good. You have to invest your emotions. If you’re watching, you’re in it. Even when we get to the end, like today at rehearsal…

BROOKS: Oh Lord.

HUDSON: Every single one of us got emotional at the end.

ERIVO: No one could sing anything!

HUDSON: We tried to snap out of it, but if you’re in it and you’re listening and you’re watching, ain’t nothing you can do about it!

BROOKS: It’s really the words. There was nothing much on stage but some chairs, maybe a few blankets, and some baskets. But if you just listen— “God is inside you and everybody else” — how can you not connect to that? We’re human too, so we want to experience it. You’re gonna catch us crying all the time.

ERIVO: I didn’t realize just how different we could make this piece, and it’s very different from what we had in London. The essence is still there, but I think we’ve made it a little bit heavier actually, and I’m so pleased about that.

BROOKS: How do you feel being the only one coming over?

ERIVO: It’s a strange feeling, actually. I want to make those people proud, but also I have a new family to do it with, and this is a different beast, and I’m privileged to be able to come and do that with these new set of glorious energies in the room.

What wisdom have you seen Cynthia bring to this?

BROOKS: She’s dedicated. It’s a dedication that only a champion has.

HUDSON: I have to second that. When I got the call, I never stopped to ask, “Who else they putting in the show?” I could not be more honored to work with both of these ladies, but Cynthia is the head, and everything else follows suit. She’s a great leader.

ERIVO: You don’t see what I see from where I stand, because I was in London watching you on my Netflix and watching you sing to everybody, thinking, “Oh these guys are just brilliant,” before knowing that you were doing this show. So when I found out you were doing it, I just thought, “Okay Cynthia, you better do this right.”

HUDSON: Oh, she’s doing it right.

Could any of you see yourself playing any other roles?

HUDSON: I thought I would have been Sofia or Celie.

BROOKS: I think in a few years I would love to try Shug. I thought I was too young to play Sofia. If we’re staying true to the book, I’m perfect for it, but Sofia does have such an old spirit to her that I thought that they were going to go older.

HUDSON: I would say it’s in the spirit of it. In being possessed. You should see her.

ERIVO: She’s so brilliant.

HUDSON: It’s really chilling, and it’s more in the spirit of it that she embodies… I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Something else takes over.

ERIVO: I don’t know if I could see myself playing another role, if only because this was the character I’ve played for two years.

BROOKS: Well, who else would you play? A church lady!?

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about each other?

BROOKS: With Cynthia, I didn’t know her but I knew that she was a force just from watching clips from YouTube, but now working with her, I love her commitment to her craft. With Jennifer — it kind of makes me emotional — it’s just how open she is as a human being. [Voice breaks.] I’m just so grateful for that because some people at certain levels, they don’t know how to be open in that way. She’s so generous with her heart, and it’s great for me to watch being in a different position, creeping up there, to see what kind of — I hate this word — celebrity I can be. I don’t have to be nasty.

HUDSON: Oh, that’s the worst misconception of it all. One of my first theater directors told me, it’s not about how good you are, but how good you are to work with. And that never left me. I’m not here for the celebrity. All I care about is the craft. Even today, I was sitting, thinking, oh my God, how awful would it be if I was this bitch that came in? I don’t even begin to know how to do that. What kind of environment would that be? How could I be at my best? Who would want to work in that type of position? But we’re here for one reason, and if we can’t support each other, then we have nothing.

You wouldn’t end the show in tears if that was the case.

HUDSON: Exactly. And that’s another thing — I like to portray what’s real. So when you do see us crying, that’s real tears. That’s not just Shug crying for Celie — that’s Jennifer crying, proud of Cynthia and Danielle. In them, I see myself.

ERIVO: You asked the question before about what these ladies bring. Danielle is absolutely full of joy. She’s a bright light. If I’m not 100 percent on the day, and I see her, I know I’m going to be fine. And Jennifer, I say to her that she’s my Oprah.

HUDSON AND BROOKS: Awwww.

HUDSON: Well, she’s the queen, I’m the princess. [Laughs.]

ERIVO: She has this wonderful — I don’t even know if you notice doing it — we’ll do a scene and she’ll get the directions and she’ll come back the day after and all the work is done. It’s the idea that someone with so little time on her hands still goes home and does her homework and comes back to something that she’s not used to. To me, brilliant. That is what I call holding the ball. It’s a proper juggle between the three of us.

HUDSON: From these ladies, it’s their passion. We are firm believers that you have to be passionate and love what you do. This is not, we’re just here because I’m from Orange Is the New Black or I’m Jennifer Hudson, I have an Oscar — that’s all out the door. No, we are here because we’re serious about it and we truly love what we do. Cynthia didn’t come all the way across the pond, honey, to sit here and play, and I didn’t move my whole family to New York for a whole year picnic. No, we came to work. So us ladies ain’t playing, right?

How do you shake this piece off together?

BROOKS: I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I thought about it today when it happened.

HUDSON: I was having that same thought! How are we supposed to come off this when we get off the stage?

ERIVO: Someone actually gave me a tip for the crying. The makeup artist said to breathe in three times. Breath is connected to everything and the moment you breathe in, everything will come back down.

HUDSON: Well all I know is today…

ERIVO: We did not do any of that breathing today.

HUDSON: I tried everything I could think of in my mind, and the stage managers could just see snot coming out. When we’re in the theater, the audience is going to be right there. They’re gonna see everything — every tear, hear every breath, every shaken note, and I’m like, okay, so, Mr. Doyle, what do we do here? ‘Cause we’re all emotional and these my babies! So if they cry, I’m crying.

BROOKS: It’s gonna be something to see.

ERIVO: As long as it comes out of truth and it’s not contrived, and we’re still telling the story, we’ll be fine. And we’ll find a way around it because we have to. We will. She doesn’t believe me.

HUDSON: I think we’ll find a way to contain it eventually, but until then, get the tissues.

The Color Purple begins previews Nov. 10 and opens Dec. 10 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.