"When I got here, my hair was not platinum blonde," Cynthia Erivo says to me over the lip of an enormous mug of tea. "I wanted it to be platinum blonde for a long time, and when I mentioned it to someone here, they were like, 'Yeah, that's a great idea, do it.' So I did." We're perched on either end of a chaise longue in Erivo's dressing room at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where the actor has spent the last several months playing the lead in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the musical adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
"I think it's the thing that really helps me now, as an actress, embracing vulnerability. Still loving being strong, but using vulnerability and understanding that that's not a weakness."
By "here," Erivo means New York. The 29-year-old actor was born and raised in London, where she began performing the role of The Color Purple's Celie in 2013. Moving to New York, it seems, has been both surreal and emboldening. "There are so many characters running around in New York that nothing is abnormal or strange or different," Erivo explains. "I've gotten to the point where I can just expect anything."
Anything? Even renown? At the time of our conversation, it had been less than two weeks since Erivo had been nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Celie, the show's much-abused heroine who learns to carve a place for herself as an independent woman in the American South. She won the Tony.
"We are in a time now where we are able to talk about domestic abuse and abuse, in a way, of people. Seeing someone overcome that and still be able to forgive and still be able to hold on to her grace is really important."
Erivo is tiny but carries herself with the assured poise of a boxer. That is, she's serene, confident, with a powerful, compact physique ("At the moment, my body is such that I look at a weight and I put muscle on"). This quiet composure makes her seem as much a veteran of the spotlight as any of the big names with whom she shares the stage. Since the production moved from the Menier Chocolate Factory in London (an Off-West End theater) to New York late last year, Erivo has starred opposite Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks (Taystee on Orange Is the New Black), and Heather Headley (who originated Nala in the Broadway production of The Lion King).
Erivo was born to Nigerian immigrants in Britain and raised by her mother, who had a sense of the actor's destiny even before she did. "My mum seemed to figure out that I was into singing and performing, she says, when I was two," Erivo recalls. Her mother played music around the house, encouraged the budding musician to pick up instruments (Erivo learned to play the clarinet, viola, and soprano sax), and enrolled her in every extracurricular arts program Erivo's teachers recommended.
When Erivo was 15, she landed the plum role of Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic, a prominent London theater that famously works with teenagers and young adults to give them professional-caliber experiences in the industry. This would later become the catalyst for the entirety of Erivo's acting career.
There are still women who are going through terrible things who need to see this story so that they can get through something. I have had a woman come to me and tell me that she left someone because she saw the show."
She began studying music psychology at the University of East London, but, she says, she was just sort of drifting—getting good grades but with little fulfillment. During that time, she had a chance encounter with the woman who had directed her in Romeo and Juliet years before. "She asked me if I was going to drama school and said I should go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I told her I didn't think I was able to get in, I didn't think I was good enough," Erivo recalls. "She forced me, in the end, to come up to her office and fill in the application form and go audition."
Erivo got in, but she admits she still needed to be broken down a little. "I guess RADA showed me that it was okay to be vulnerable from time to time," she says. "I think it's the thing that really helps me now, as an actress, embracing vulnerability. Still loving being strong, but using vulnerability and understanding that that's not a weakness. I had to get used to the fact that that actually was one of my tools that I could use."
Now, in her role as Celie, vulnerability is the greatest power tool she wields. The abuse that Celie experiences is shocking, and their details cannot be avoided: she is raped repeatedly by the man she thinks is her father and becomes pregnant twice, only to have her children taken from her. She's sold into marriage to a man who beats her and demands that she cut off communication with her sister, the only person Celie can truly trust (years later Celie discovers that her husband has been hiding her sister's letters from her). Her close friend is the target of brutal racial violence. The woman in whom Celie finally finds romantic love eventually leaves her.
"The show tells a few stories that are quite necessary right now," Erivo says. "It tells the story of a person who doesn't know her own strength or power. It's the story of a person who is told that she's really only there for the use of others. We are in a time now where we are able to talk about domestic abuse and abuse, in a way, of people. Seeing someone overcome that and still be able to forgive and still be able to hold on to her grace is really important. It's a story of survival."
When first working with director John Doyle to develop their take on Celie, Erivo says, "it was important for both of us to not pander to wanting her to be felt sorry for. She could spend the whole show crying if she wanted to, but that's not where the heartbreak comes. I think it breaks people's hearts when they see someone going, 'It's fine, it's fine, it's fine,' and everyone else is going, 'It's not. It's not fine.'"
A lesser performer might play Celie purely as a victim, but Erivo presents her as sly-witted and a quick observer of human behavior. Despite Erivo's stature, in the moments of Celie's greatest despair and at her eventual self-actualization, the actor's voice is enormous. The show finds its climax during the song "I'm Here," which marks the moment of Celie's greatest self-discovery. As Erivo belts, "I believe I have inside of me / Everything that I need to live a bountiful life," the audience cheers.
"I'd love to be anyplace where there's the inception of a piece of art, of a show, of a story. I'd love to be a part of that at the beginning, when it starts."
Erivo is frequently approached by women who have found their own sense of self after seeing her perform. "They completely understand this woman, this Celie character," Erivo says. "There are women who are still being abused. There are still women who are going through terrible things who need to see this story so that they can get through something. I have had a woman come to me and tell me that she left someone because she saw the show. She found the strength through the story to leave her abusive partner."
"I think we've set up a really comfortable place for people to share and be honest with themselves, with us," she continues. "Because where else can they do that, if not the theater? I think that's a wonderful thing, that here is the place that people can open up and tell us what's going on in their lives, simply by trying to help someone else on stage."
Of course, she won't play Celie forever. When the time comes to move on, Erivo has a few dream roles in mind. "I'd love to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. I would love to play Serena [Williams] if there were ever a biopic. She's incredible and she has an amazing story. If they ever thought that it would be a good idea to do another thing on Nina Simone, I would love to do that. There's a beautiful film called Corrina, Corrina, a Whoopi Goldberg film, and if that were ever turned into a musical, I'd love to do that. I'd love to be anyplace where there's the inception of a piece of art, of a show, of a story. I'd love to be a part of that at the beginning, when it starts."
Styled by Calvy Click. Hair by Giselle Modeste for Epiphany Artist Group. Makeup by Michael Patterson.