Meet Nikisha Williams From The Color Purple (At The Orpheum Right Now!)
Broadway musical “The Color Purple” is in Memphis through February 18, 2018. Today I had coffee with Nikisha Williams, an honorary Memphian who’s back in town for the Orpheum’s run of the show.
Nikisha is from Mobile, Alabama, and attended the University of Southern Mississippi (in my hometown of Hattiesburg) before coming to Memphis in 2013 for three years. I’m calling her an honorary Memphian for a couple reasons that will become clear in the interview below.
But first, get your tickets and make plans to check out this heartfelt musical this week or weekend. There are evening shows Wednesday through Sunday, plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
Now, get to know Nikisha a little bit better with this Q&A.
Holly: Hi Nikisha! Tell us about yourself and how you got to Memphis.
Nikisha: I was hired by Amon Eady at White Station High School to be assistant choir director in 2013. He left after a year to pursue a doctorate degree, and asked me to become director. I did that for two more years. While I was here, I did shows around town including Playhouse on the Square. My first role was in “Hairspray”, then later I was the lead role of Felicia in “Memphis The Musical”. I also did performances with Opera Memphis and other groups; it was a great performance experience here. Read more about Nikisha here.
Holly: What were your impressions of the Memphis theater/arts scene?
Nikisha: I didn’t know much about the Memphis performing arts scene before I moved here. I knew it was a good music scene, but I found out about the theater, dance, plays, and opera – it didn’t take long for me to find it because everything is so accessible.
Also, a lot of my [White Station High School] students were able to be a part of the shows in town, so I was teaching them in the classroom and then seeing them learn outside of the classroom. Memphis is a great outlet for anybody trying to perform, not just recording in studios. The theater, dance, and cultivation of performing arts is really spectacular.
Holly: What happened after you left Memphis? How did you ultimately end up coming back for “The Color Purple” at the Orpheum?
Nikisha: I moved to NYC and auditioned for everything. I worked at Ellen’s Stardust Dinner, which is a musical restaurant, so I was singing Lady Gaga and asking people if they wanted a side of ranch (laughs). It was a great way to pay for the expensiveness that is NYC. So I was singing and serving cheeseburgers when I got a job at Disney…that allowed me to get my actor’s union card and start auditioning for more regional theater and Broadway shows.
In March [of 2017] I auditioned for “The Color Purple”. It was a long process. I went in for the initial call and sang. Weeks later, I went back and sang show’s actual music and did some scenes. Every two weeks, I would go back and do more. At the last call, all the directors were there and I did everything they asked, and got to join the show.
Holly: You have a very unique, impressive role for this show. Tell us about that.
Nikisha: I am a “swing” which means I can play several different roles. I’m an “offstage swing”, so I’m waiting in the wings to cover someone’s role. I’m an understudy for seven of the nine female roles in The Color Purple. (Ed. Note: How does she remember it all?!) If someone gets sick, or takes a personal day or is on vacation, I’m ready to go on. This Friday and Saturday in Memphis, I’ll for sure be in the ensemble cast as one of the Church Ladies. It’s a fun role and I get to be the comic relief.
Holly: Whether someone is familiar with “The Color Purple” film or not, what can we expect from this version of TCP?
Nikisha: It’s an abbreviated version of the movie, and since it’s musical theater it definitely has its lighter points. We want to tell the [difficult] story… and we do, but at the end, you get so much out of it. Even though Celie and everyone go through their journeys, at the end of the day…I don’t want to say it’s a “happy” ending because it’s not cheesy like that. But you’re still feeling empowered at the end. Celie comes out a better person. And the way its show is very realistic and relatable.
It’s nice at this period in time to see all these female leads and see these issues addressed and turn into something beautiful. All of the characters have very individual personalities, but they learn from each other and help each other.
Holly: What are your favorite songs from “The Color Purple”?
Nikisha: The whole score is gorgeous. The first time I saw it on Broadway, I listened to cast recording religiously. One of my favorite moments on stage is when we are all in Harpo’s juke join and Sug Avery is singing her song, “Push Da Button”. Everyone is on stage, playing off of each other, and with these little ad libs with their partners. And of course, “I’m Here” is the definitive women’s empowerment song.
Holly: Even though the show is set in Georgia, they mentioned Memphis half a dozen times.
Nikisha: At that time (early 1900s) Memphis was – and still is – a spot for a lot of music and culture. Being in Georgia in a place where there was nothing, someone coming back from Memphis…it was like a superstar coming back home.
Holly: And while Beale Street wasn’t mentioned, I was imagining Beale Street being where Sug was coming home from, since at that time the street was known as a hub for black music and business.
Nikisha: There was so much jazz, big band, and blues. Because that’s the history. It’s cool that they incorporated that into the show.
Holly: Why should people see “The Color Purple” in Memphis?
Nikisha: Because it’s a story that transcends time, and it’s relatable to everyone. No matter what color, gender, or age, you definitely take something away from the show. At this point in history, it’s something that people need to see, especially with the women’s empowerment movement. It’s a reminder, even through all the struggles, that you can still overcome if you persist within yourself. You’re enough, you’re beautiful and you can keep moving forward.
I had a chance to see the show last night, and I recommend it. The set and special effects were more pared down than some of the more rah-rah shows I’ve seen, but that was clearly by design. This production focuses on the compelling personalities of the characters and the actors’ incredible musical and acting abilities.
The world of The Color Purple, like the actual world, is woven through with tough issues like sexual assault, domestic violence, and racism, but the wit and joy of the characters seemed determined not to weigh down the – for lack of better word – mood. As Nikisha said, it’s still musical theater. You could make the argument that this show is about giving voices to characters living in an oppressive world, not the oppressive world itself.
There’s also good dose of wink-wink sexual innuendo that adults will appreciate.
The Color Purple is at The Orpheum through February 18, 2018. Check here for showtimes and ticket info.
The Color Purple
February 13 – 18, 2018
This interview was edited for length and clarity.