Jennifer Hudson always thought that she'd make her Broadway debut if they brought Dreamgirls back. So it came as a surprise when she was offered the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple. Like the pro she is, she's found her footing in the acclaimed Broadway revival — alongside co-stars Cynthia Erivo, who has received raves for her performance as Celie, and Danielle Brooks, who brings down the house as Sofia. We caught up with Hudson after she'd played only a few performances to talk about how The Color Purple is changing her life and how she's made the adjustment from film, television and concert life to theatre.
How are performances going?
Jennifer Hudson: They are going good! Each one teaches us that much more, and it's starting to make more and more sense because the first night of previews I was like, "Jesus! What is happening? Oh my God!" When we started rehearsals in the theatre, as soon as I stepped on the stage, it started to [come together] that much more, but then when we added the audience I was like, "Oh my God! There's an audience there." It changes everything to me… It's a discovery every time.
What was it like getting that first audience? Were you nervous? Anxious? This is your Broadway debut!
JH: Everything. All of those emotions. Every single one of those emotions. The first week, I was just worried about everything, like, "Oh my God. What if this happens? Oh my God. What do I do?!" because I was just still learning the ropes of how the theatre works versus doing my own shows [where] you're in control of everything. Here it's like…releasing that control and then trusting someone else to guide you. It's a unit; it's not just you, so it's learning how to be a team player. It's so much to learn, you know? So each day teaches me that much more… But, it's scary at the same time. [During] previews we're like, "Y'all realize we're still in our rehearsals, technically," and then [we're] keeping up with the changes and, again, feeling the audience and seeing their reactions to things. The first night I was like, "Oh! They're laughing? Oh, okay! Wait, they're applauding!" I'm learning the rhythm of it.
This is a beautiful story in which everyone can relate to and say, "I'm okay being me. I am beautiful." What has it been like for you to deliver these messages to audiences?
JH: The reactions while they're sitting there — they are so powerful. They are so moving and so apparent — you see it. I remember when we were out there, and Celie sings "The Color Purple" song, you hear people burst out into emotion. One lady literally bowled over in her own lap as soon as we went into song, and it's like… How can you keep going and see that? You know what I mean? It takes you in, and you have to be able to contain yourself when you see what they relate to and what it means to them.
How has theatre and this art form been fulfilling to you as an artist? We all go through our highs and lows, but the theatre forces us to leave it all on the floor. Have you felt changed?
JH: Definitely. I feel definitely changed. I feel like this is such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful experience, and it's changing every day. Every day. Nights I walk off the stage…one night I was like, "I don't know if this is for my nerves. I don't know if I can handle this. [Laughs] This is too much." But then, other nights, you feel like you could conquer the world. You know, each night it gives you another gift of something else.
What has been the most challenging part?
JH: I feel like it's all challenging, but…I want to say just being able to process this whole thing. This whole world is just so different for me from film… On the camera you can hide behind the camera; you're so bare here. You're wide open. You're vulnerable. You're accessible. You're so many things and [you must allow] that to happen. Yeah, it's scary, but it's good at the same time.
What's on your bucket list? What do you want to do next? Are you loving Broadway?
JH: I love it. I do. I do. I do. I don't know what's on my bucket list because I've been able to do so many things I've always wanted to do. I have to think about that. I will let you know. [Laughs] I'll have an answer for you next time! You got me stumped!
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)