With the untimely death of Prince (and no, none of us are over it yet), The Color Purple has been on everyone’s mind this season. But the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Color Purple, which launched this past December, comes to mind lately for a more upbeat reason: Grammy-winning actress Heather Headley recently replaced Jennifer Hudson in the role of Shug Avery. Sixteen years have passed since Headley won Best Actress in a Musical for Aida, years filled with inspirational albums like Audience of One and a London run of The Bodyguard musical, where she took on the Whitney Houston role of Rachel Marron. Headley sat with ESSENCE.com in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District to discuss diversity on Broadway and the modern state of the music industry.
Compare diversity on Broadway to diversity in Hollywood.
I’ve always said that I think Broadway has been an exceptional example of diversity within that community. ’Cause when we look on our street, we’ve got Eclipsed with Lupita, Shuffle Along across the street, Color Purple, Forest Whitaker down the street [in Hughie]. We’ve got Hamilton, Lion King. Children of color can come to New York City, walk into certain theaters and see themselves onstage—as African women, women in the ’20s… So I do think there is a beauty to the diversity on Broadway. Hollywood is a bit of a different story. But I think at some point, hopefully, they’ll follow suit. There could always be more shows, but at this point, I have to say I’m proud of what Broadway has offered.
So no need for #TonysSoWhite?
[laughter] No. That won’t be the hashtag this year.
You’ve taken over for Jennifer Hudson, who balances acting and music like you. American Idol just ended. Do you think those types of shows were detrimental or positive to the music industry?
That is an amazing question. I think there are pros and cons. American Idol, The Voice, X Factor allowed people who maybe didn’t have to push through the ranks an opportunity to go to an audition and all of a sudden be onstage and there it is. I think it did change the music business a little bit. But I can’t fault or be upset with those people who have had success from that. There are a lot of people who would say, “I would never have gotten a record deal if I didn’t have the chance to be on something like American Idol.” So we have to thank God for that. Because if we got Jennifer outta that, then let’s get that!
Describe the impact seeing or reading The Color Purple had on you the first time.
I remember Oprah, I remember Whoopi, and I remember that sadness of Whoopi. I think, for me, the movie was so sad that I did not want to watch it. Like, The Passion of the Christ I’ve seen, and it’s like, “Can’t do it again.” I had to force myself. I think The Color Purple was almost the same way—the sadness in it. You kind of don’t want to watch, but you want to watch. I thought Whoopi Goldberg was so incredibly amazing. Like, her heart. You just break for her. And then on the other side, you broke for Oprah when everything happened [to her character, Sofia]. Just because I know if not for the grace of God, there goes I. You can be all kinds of strong in spirit and it just takes one person to knock us down like that and we’re done. Which sometimes happens in our world.
The Color Purple: The Musical is currently on Broadway.
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