DIVA TALK: Chatting With Shida and Color Purple Star Jeannette Bayardelle

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting With Shida and Color Purple Star Jeannette Bayardelle
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jeannette Bayardelle
Jeannette Bayardelle

Jeannette Bayardelle
Jeannette Bayardelle, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, earning the NAACP Theater Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her work in the central role of Celie, is currently starring in the limited engagement of Shida, a new musical that also happens to feature book, music and lyrics by the gifted artist. The one-woman production, which casts Bayardelle in numerous roles, is part of the Ars Nova Summer Fling series and is scheduled to continue through Aug. 28 at the intimate New York theatre. Bayardelle, who was also seen in the Tony-winning revival of Hair, based her musical on the life struggles of a childhood friend whose substance abuse problems nearly derailed her dreams to become a writer. I recently had the chance to chat with actress-singer-composer-lyricist-librettist Bayardelle, who spoke about the genesis of Shida as well as her work on Broadway and around the world; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven’t spoken before, let's go back a bit. Can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Jeannette Bayardelle: I was born and raised in New York City in the Bronx.

Question: When did you start performing?
Bayardelle: Right out of high school I did my first musical, which was an Off Off-Broadway musical called Another Chance. And I went to the High School of the Performing Arts – LaGuardia in Manhattan.

Question: Did you perform as a kid as well?
Bayardelle: Not really, [although] I sang a lot in church.

Question: Were there any actors or singers you admired growing up who influenced you?
Bayardelle: Oh, absolutely, of course. I always loved Whitney Houston. Whitney Houston is someone I always looked up to vocally, but a lot of the people in high school that I did admire were people I went to school with. Going to LaGuardia, you’re in school with a bunch of talented kids. Question: When do you think you knew performing was going to be your career?
Bayardelle: When I was in junior high school…I would sing all the time, but I really wanted to rap. But I found a love for musical theatre when I was in high school and I took an audition prep class. It was there that I learned all about musical theatre because I had never seen a musical before this time.

Question: What musicals did you get to perform in high school?
Bayardelle: I was a vocal major, so we didn’t do any musicals. We just learned songs and prepped for auditions, so we didn’t put on any musicals or anything like that in high school.

Question: Was that Off-Broadway show you mentioned your first professional...?
Bayardelle: That was my first professional job, yes.

Question: What was your Broadway debut?
Bayardelle: My Broadway debut was The Color Purple.

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway and how that lived up to expectations or was different from what you expected?
Bayardelle: My first night on Broadway. Ok, well you know I started The Color Purple as a swing. So I was a swing for a year, and then I took on the role of Celie a year later. [Laughs.] … A huge jump from swing to leading lady! My first time on stage was amazing. Of course, I was nervous and my stomach was a little queasy, but I [said to myself], "Now is the time, I have to do it afraid." And the first time I went on for Celie, it was such a fulfilling role. I never knew it would be so fulfilling because I had been on for the other characters; I understudied 11 different people. Nettie, the Church Ladies, so Celie was actually the last character I went on for. When I did it, that’s when I said, "Oh my goodness, I’m in love." I thought it would be a lot of work and too much pressure, but I thought, "Oh no, I can do this!" It was such a fulfilling role. Of course, I was happy to take over the role after LaChanze left. [Laughs.]

Angela Robinson and Jeannette Bayardelle in The Color Purple.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: What was that like once you got to perform that role eight times a week?
Bayardelle: Actually, that was so much easier than having to know 11 different parts! [Laughs.] I’m like, "Wow, I can stick to one show. This is beautiful, this is easy now!"

Question: How do you even go about learning 11 parts? I’m always amazed by the swings, who cover all those roles.
Bayardelle: You know what? I learn it as one big song. [Laughs.] It’s just a long song that never ends. But I tell you, that experience really prepared me for where I am now and, of course, it influenced how I wrote this musical that I’m doing now, Shida, and how I perform it, and how I'm able to go from one character to the next character. I feel like The Color Purple was my classroom. It was better than going to Harvard!

Question: How did this one-woman show come about?
Bayardelle: I wrote it out of frustration. I was in Hair on Broadway, and we were getting ready to close, and I had a meeting with my agent, and I was waiting in the lobby. While I was waiting, I just started to get frustrated and feeling like I didn't like depending on people to dictate my future, waiting for the next part, waiting for someone to write the next part…and I just had this idea [that] I need to write something that fits me, a story that I want to tell, and I felt like there was more that I could contribute to the industry than just singing and acting. And, immediately, I came up with the idea of writing a musical, and I [thought] I should do it on my childhood best friend, who had a really interesting story about being a bright girl growing up in the Bronx and wanting to do amazing things with her life, but she fell on hard times and she ended up on hard drugs. And, I said, "Wow, I need to tell her story because I believe that her story will help other people and inspire other people." We all know somebody that deals with addiction or depression, or somebody who just doesn’t want to live anymore. But I thought telling her story would help other people on their path back to purpose.

Question: Is her first name the name of the show?
Bayardelle: Her name is Rashida, and her mother, who is in the show as well—well, I play her mother as well—her mother used to call her Shida.

Question: Has her family come to see the show?
Bayardelle: Yes, they did, they came to one of the earliest showings that we did three years ago at Birdland. They came, and it was difficult. The first time she saw it, she wanted a private hearing because she didn’t want people around, and she wanted to live every moment and express herself the way she wanted to express herself without having people watch her. I remember we did it in a rehearsal space, and she had her tissue out, and she just cried the whole show. And, afterward she came up to me, she just pulled me aside, and said, "Thank you – thank you for helping me to not be ashamed of the things that took place in my life." Question: What is her life like today?
Bayardelle: Her life is wonderful today. She’s actually expecting a baby, and she’s happy about the success of the show and how people come and love the show. She's just really thrilled, and I’m just really happy to see her on that path, the path of purpose.

Bayardelle in Shida.
photo by Walter McBride

Question: Tell me a little bit about how playing a more intimate space like Ars Nova compares to playing in a Broadway theatre. What’s that transition been like?
Bayardelle: Well, you know, I would say this is definitely more pressure because in a Broadway theatre, of course, I was part of a cast. I’m part of a cast now of about seven or six characters now, but it's just me. There’s no break, and I have a responsibility to deliver the same quality every night and tell the story and give people the full experience of musical theatre with it just being me. And that was the thing in writing it—I wanted people to come and see the show, and I didn’t want you to feel like you were watching a one-woman show. Because some people are turned off by one-woman shows. A lot of people that come say, "You know what, when I came, I felt like I didn't want to see a one-woman show. I don’t want to see that!” But they were blown away because they had no idea it was a full-on musical, and honestly you really forget that it’s just me! [Laughs.] And there are moments in the show where you're like, “Oh my goodness, wait a minute – it’s just her on the stage!” But you really forget, and the people they say they want to meet the characters! They’ll say, “Where’s Jackie?” or “Where’s Miss Smalls?" It’s just so funny because I make stuff up like, "Jackie said she’s not talking to anyone because she has to preserve her voice for the second show." And, they laugh… A lot of us actors and singers, we have more to offer, but sometimes you don’t tap into it because you don’t realize it’s an option. And I feel like the bar has been raised. A lot of us are so talented, and we just limit ourselves to what we know, but we don’t search within ourselves to pull out those things inside of us that can just take people to the next level with entertainment, and give the audience something more from us other than imitation.

Question: What’s your goal with this show? Would you like to perform it elsewhere?
Bayardelle: We definitely want to go to Broadway, and we definitely want to tour. We get so many invites to tour around, even in Africa! [Laughs.] So we definitely are going to plan a tour. We’ve done it in Syracuse already; we’ve done it in Virginia. Of course, we’ve done workshops in New York. But this show is definitely going to have a life, a long life. It’s a story that people want to hear, and it’s a story people need to hear.

Question: You mentioned Africa. I heard you recently returned from a trip to Africa. Was that your first time or had you been before?
Bayardelle: Oh no, I’d been before. I’m in Africa maybe four or five times a year now.

Question: For work or pleasure or both?
Bayardelle: For both. I’m also an artist – a singer, so I did a tour. I toured with my CD.

Question: What kind of music?
Bayardelle: I sing inspirational music – music that empowers. I love Africa, Africa loves me. [Laughs.] I’ve done South Africa, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, lots of African countries. I’ve done India, Europe, The Netherlands, Jamaica, the Caribbean, all over. I’m literally traveling about 48 weeks out of the year. But I took off, of course, because Shida is my baby. We planned this. That's pretty much the only thing that can keep me here these days. But I'll tell you, stepping out doing your own thing is definitely a challenge because you have to have faith, and you have to believe in the product that you have. Sometimes it means saying no to other things. I know my agents probably get frustrated because I kind of just don’t go out to audition for anything. I’m focused on Shida, and I’m focused on my touring. I just want to do things that I’m drawn to and things that I feel are going to take my career to the next level or take my audience to the next level, and I think that’s what Shida does. Question: Do you think Shida has a message? What does it say to you?
Bayardelle: Oh yes. For me it has so many different messages. [Laughs.] But for people, there’s definitely a message. The message is, number one, we can’t judge people. A lot of times people get in situations, and we judge them based on a decision that they made. But we don't realize that decision was made based on something that happened, and they responded based on their paradigm. And, what is their paradigm? Their paradigm is the way they see the world based on the experiences that they have had. We don’t look at that. We’re like, "Oh you’re doing drugs, you’re bad."…… We do a lot of judging. But this show really opens up your eyes and says, "Wait a minute, let me not judge this person. Let me see this person’s story and see why and how they ended up here and why they do the things they do." And I believe that message speaks to everyone – black, white, male, female, everybody. If you just talk to people who've seen the show, I’m telling you they get the same message.

[For reservations or more information call (866) 811-4111 or visit ShidaTheMusical.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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