The musical adaptation of Alice Walker's harrowing yet life-affirming novel The Color Purple has enraptured Broadway audiences for two years, triumphantly bringing the emotionally wrenching work to the stage and showcasing powerful lead performances by the Tony-winning LaChanze and "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino. In January, the show is getting a vigorous new injection into the roles of quarreling couple Harpo and Sofia with gospel/R&B legends BeBe Winans and Chaka Khan, who have collectively won enough Grammys to line the stage.
The fortuitous pairing of Winans and Khan underscores many parallels in their lives. Both have just released new CDs: His is "Cherch," hers is "Funk This" (her first recording of original music in ten years). The soulful singers have been friends for years and have shared the same stage for separate performances at various events, but have never sung together until now.
Both speak about conquering the fear of tackling roles that are quite different from their real-life personas, and both love the book by Alice Walker and the 1985 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. In fact, Khan and Winans' late brother Ronald had ties to the movie.
"I was supposed to play [singer] Shug Avery," reveals Khan, speaking on the phone from a train en route to Washington, DC. "Steven Spielberg came to me and wanted me for the part. I was scared to death. 'No, I can't do it! I can't speak in a Southern drawl.' He said he would get linguistics people. I met with him three or four times, and he finally just said, 'I don't think you want to do it, huh?' I just didn't. I was scared." The R&B diva says she did not regret the decision; at the time her pop career was taking on new life with her 1984 recording "I Feel For You." But by the time she did Mama, I Want To Sing in London's West End in 1995 — a performance for which she won a Capitol Radio Listener's Award — she was primed for the stage.
Winans and his brother were avid fans of the book, and movie casting director Reuben Cannon actually asked Ronald to audition for the role of Harpo. But the film's working title was different and the original source material not revealed, so Ronald turned him down. When the Winans brothers met up again with Cannon after having seen Spielberg's film seven times, they learned what had transpired.
"My brother just gasped," recalls the tenor at his Nashville home. "He pinched himself for the rest of his life that he didn't take that opportunity. So for me to be offered the role of Harpo in the Color Purple stage play, I looked up towards heaven and said, 'There's one person smiling down who says, You have to do this."
Winans and Khan are no strangers to acting. He had a small part in the recent movie remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," performed on Broadway in the 1987 musical Don't Get God Started and appeared in the national tours of What's On the Hearts of Men and Broadway's The Civil War. She had a cameo in the "Blues Brothers" movie and starred onstage in Mama, I Want To Sing. While Winans was buoyed by his past stage experiences, Khan was not so thrilled by her own.
"There were some aspects that were very [much like the] Dark Ages," she recalls of her time in the West End. "They weren't insured. I was looking for Shakespeare around there." She adds that her employers weren't particularly nice to their cast and crew, and the experience left a bad taste. But friends, family and Broadway veterans allayed her fears, and she is honored to be part of The Color Purple, adding, "It's perfect for me."
As a songwriter, Winans likes a good story that takes people on a journey, and he believes The Color Purple succeeds unquestionably. "There are just sayings, especially in the African American world, that will stay with you the rest of your days," he elaborates. "When I met Oprah, one of the first things that came out of me was Harpo. It really is amazing. I can pick up the phone and call any one of my friends and start a line from The Color Purple, and they will finish it because it became a part of our core. That is what drew me over and over again to the piece. It's been a great journey for so long."
"It's empowering," declares Khan of Celie's heartbreaking journey through hardship and struggle. "It's a beautiful story about how you just never know what life holds for you. All you have to do is stay alive and stay honest and good, and you don't even have to do that. You have to be open to be honest and be open to the love in order to become loving and honest. Everyone has the power and the wherewithal to do whatever one wishes in life. God gives blessings, but they're incomplete blessings. He gives half, and you have to work the other half yourself."