Jennifer Holliday is no stranger to The Color Purple. In 2014, she appeared in a “mini-tour” of the show, playing Sofia, and she returned to Broadway October 4 as the Tony-winning revival’s new Shug Avery. Following her first four performances, she met with press October 7 at Gallagher’s Steakhouse on 52nd Street to chat about “Comin’ to Town.”
Tell me about your first show!
Jennifer Holliday: It was so exciting, mainly because I had been rehearsing without an audience, so I didn’t really know how the audience would respond, and they were crazy. It was different. It wasn’t even like a Broadway audience; it was like a concert. I had to say, “Y’all sit down. Sit down! Sit down!!” But it was very exciting and a thrilling night.
When did you first see this production? Cynthia Erivo’s performance… Were you blown away?
JH: I was blown away, and I first saw the show this past July. I didn’t have any idea that I would even be thinking about being in the show, and when they called me and asked me [if] I would audition for it, I was like, “I don’t even know if I can be on the same stage with Cynthia in terms of the acting level.” The rawness, and just that pure simplicity of being so vulnerable... so I thought about it and was so glad that the director, John Doyle, took so much time with me. It’s like a master class to personally take me through things. He didn’t let anyone else teach me, and he made Shug Avery my own for me. The whole four weeks of rehearsal were just spent with him.
You’ve done The Color Purple before. Tell me about going from playing Sofia to taking on Shug.
JH: Well, this version of the play is more of like a play with music. The original, especially the touring production, is a musical with the acting, so therefore, I feel that the difference would be the bigness. With Shug, I get a chance to be subtle, more sultry; I have soft nuances now, and then to learn acting—to be on the same stage with Cynthia every night, to get another master class. I get two things of learning how to be an actress and to grow and the challenge of doing that. That, in itself, has been so rewarding.
I saw on Instagram, you shared a picture of you onstage with a caption of Cynthia’s welcome. What was your first conversation with her?
JH: Well, I didn’t get a chance to have a lot of rehearsal with her because she has [eight] shows a week, so basically all of my time has been with John Doyle—all of my time during the rehearsals—so it wasn’t until the last week [I got to] really introduce myself as, “I’m your new Shug,” so we’re just now bonding, and we’re just now finding our moments together. I just don’t want to not be able to give her what she needs as an actress, so I’m still working very hard to learn her rhythm, to learn from her, to be able to give her what she needs as an actress.
What are some of your other dream roles that you’d like to take on?
JH: It’s just been wonderful to get back into Broadway. If this is something where more doors open for me, I don’t know that yet, but right now it’s been so rewarding to grow as an actress. This is the closest thing to doing a straight play because my second act doesn’t even have a lot of songs. I’m acting, and to be up there learning… I don’t know what will come out of it, but I want to be prepared. I want to be ready.