Rema Webb discusses her 18 years on Broadway, being part of the award-winning The Color Purple revival

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Rema Webb has spent the past eighteen years on Broadway and she’s showing no signs of stopping.

The Color Purple star is perhaps best known for her role as Mrs. Brown in the original Broadway company of Book of Mormon, but was last seen in the 2014 revival of Violet, where she regularly stopped the show with her rousing rendition of “Raise Me Up.” In the years since making her debut with the original cast of The Lion King, Webb has proven time and time again that she is one of the most versatile actresses currently on the scene.

From classic Broadway belts to gospel to jazz, Webb can do it all—and often has.

In addition to her busy Broadway schedule, she is the founder and executive director of On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program, which works to empower and educate kids and teens in the performing arts.

Webb took the time to talk with Stage Door Dish about her hopes for the future of theatre and the amazing cast and hard-working crew at The Color Purple.

You play one of the Church Ladies in The Color Purple. Can you talk about the role a little bit and what you find most enjoyable about it?

I just love being a Church Lady. I enjoy it because I adore Carrie Compere and Bre Jackson. We are Church Ladies on the stage and off the stage, it never ends. It’s been that way since day one of rehearsals. Working with them is amazing, I think being that trio and being that mini-Greek chorus together just came naturally. And I know those Church Ladies–from the Catholic church, from the Baptist church, from the Pentecostal church. These are women that I grew up with in Pennsylvania, and I know them so well. Those women mentored me, encouraged me, reprimanded me. I sat on the front porch listening to them; back then, children were to be seen and not heard. And the gossip that went on in church and out of church–we’d mock them all the time. So I’ve known them for a very long time, and I channel a different one every night. It’s kind of fun to be these women that I grew up. 

Can you talk about the audience reaction to the Church Ladies in the show?

I was kind of surprised at first because John Doyle was very adamant about making sure that we didn’t make them stereotypes or caricatures. In fact, he stripped anything comedic from it at first. And he asked us ‘Who are you? You’re the audience, you’re not just church ladies, you are witnessing what’s going on in this community. What does that mean to you?’ So he established that first and then put the comedy in. I was worried at first, I wasn’t trusting myself as an actress, but I’m so absolutely grateful that he stripped every stereotype and every caricature from it. It paid off because we still get a great reaction because we’re the comedic relief, but not in a way that diminishes the seriousness of the situation. So I was really shocked–‘the acting is in the not acting,’ he always says–that our simplicity got us such a great reaction, and it also made me reevaluate my way of doing things. Being reminded of this way of acting has been a wake-up call. It’ll be hard to go back to caricatures, to being anything that resembles a stereotype. It reaffirmed my trust in myself and in not having to do too much. Just be. Tell the story, be very authentic and it’s going to work.

I heard that you have read at least ten of Alice Walker’s books. What’s it like being in a show based on one of her books?

This is a dream come true for me. This journey with the show started when I was thirteen years old. I read the book, saw the movie, and then when it came to Broadway a few years ago, I didn’t even know it was there. So it’s a dream that I had put away for ten years and never thought about again. That’s the wonderful thing: you never know what’s being prepared or worked out for you, you just need to be prepared when opportunity comes. I could’ve never fathomed that this would happen again.
When the audition came up, I went to my acting coach, I really prepared for it in the most technical way I could. Everything was sound. I didn’t go in nervous and hungry. I just approached it in the most professional manner I possibly could. Maybe that was the key or maybe it was just meant to be. I don’t know. 

You sometimes cover for Shug Avery. What attracts you to that character?

Shug is such a hot mess, and I love her for it. She’s a hot mess, but she’s brilliant and full of life and love and passion and wisdom and insight. But she’s going through her own thing. You know, she’s human. And I love that. I love the fact that after all of that she still displays her own humanity. I’m attracted to that complexity.

I have to ask about the creative team behind this show because it’s so phenomenally strong. John Doyle is an incredible director, and you have Oprah who was in the film and has been so vocal expressing her deep love for this show. What’s it like to work with that energy and that kind of support?

It was pretty surreal and amazing all at the same time. Oprah came a few times, and we workshopped the show a little bit and had the whole creative team right there behind the table. Allee [Willis] came a little later, and her and Brenda [Russell] sitting with us while we were recording and sharing with us the history of the music and how the writers put it together, which was amazing. I couldn’t absorb enough of their energy and their wisdom and anything they had to say. I wanted to just hold on to everything. They were so loving, so supportive, such amazing taskmasters that it was like being in a master class for five weeks with John and Miss Catherine and Brenda K. Russell and Stephen and Allee and Miss Walker, oh my God, it was just an incredible experience, and I’ll never forget it.

I have to switch gears to the newly-minted Tony nominees, Danielle Brooks and Cynthia Erivo. These incredible women came together for this show and are killing it. What’s it like to be part of this experience with them and what happens when you guys aren’t on stage?

Fortunately, from day one, the entire cast came together in a really special way. We just clicked personality-wise and bonded very quickly. We all enjoy each other’s company outside of the theatre, and those ladies are incredible actors and people, and I think that’s a John Doyle thing. I think he had to make sure he had the right energy surrounding this production. The humility that surrounds those three women, and the whole cast, is a true blessing.

This is such an incredible year for people of color in theatre. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a part of such an incredible historic moment in theatre because of this?

We’re calling 45th Street ‘Chocolate City 45’. Right now, with Hamilton and Allegiance, On Your Feet! and Shuffle Along and Lion King and Eclipsed and The Color Purple. I’ve been going to Broadway since 1976, but I’ve never seen anything like this, and what I don’t want is for producers and the powers that put these shows on Broadway to say, ‘Okay, we did this, isn’t this a great thing? Now I want you to savor this for forty years because it probably won’t happen again.’ No, I want them to say ‘This is a great thing, and it does work, it does make money. It’s reaching people, it’s going across all different types of demographics. This is a win-win situation for us all; let’s stay committed and keep this going.’ I would love to see that happen, and for them to stay consistent, so what happened at the Tonys a few years ago never happens again, and what happened at the Oscars this year–I want us to be an example for that. I hope fear doesn’t get in the way and stop them because of what they may think the status quo wants. If you don’t challenge that, how do you know it’s possible? If you don’t stay committed to that, how do you know it’s possible? I hope that awareness will happen. I would love for us to shut down 45th Street and have a big ol’ block party and celebrate this time.

I want to talk about On Broadway Performing Arts.

On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program, or On Broadway-PATP, is an arts education program for children ages 5-15. I actually started writing out this curriculum and imagining what this program could be back in ‘08 during Book of Mormon rehearsals, but I didn’t start implementing it until 2012 with my friend Daniel Siford, who’s also my business partner.
It’s a conservatory type curriculum. My technique is strength-based not weakness-based. A lot of times when you go through programs, they harp on your weaknesses. And you can imagine how long it takes to wipe all of that away. I feel it’s better to empower a young person. Let’s talk about your strengths first and make you feel safe in this environment, and then we’ll work on the weaknesses. I just never want a kid or young person to ever not feel safe with me while trying to become better in their craft, or just to have more self-confidence.  

I love doing anything I can to help a young person because I’ve had such amazing mentors or angels in my life that have guided me even when I didn’t realize it. I can’t not go back and do that, and I love young people. I always tell my kids just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be respected. Young people feed my soul and I love to hear their opinions because you guys are the new leaders, you’re the new revolutionaries, you’re on the cutting edge of everything. Sometimes some of the older artists in the industry when I see them snub a young person. I think, ‘how crazy are you, can you imagine social media-wise how crazy it would be if you did a song together? She’s hot right now, you’re a living legend, you two do something together and bam! It’s amazing. Instead of you being a little weird about embracing this new person or criticizing them as an artist.’ Art is art, you can’t criticize, you’ve got to embrace it whether you get it or not. I just don’t ever want to be that person.

So you have been in theatre for 18 years. That is an incredible accomplishment. Is it something you’re constantly aware of or are you just happy to keep going?

After 18 years, I almost feel like I’m starting all over again with how passionate I am. After 18 years, you do start thinking about your mortality in the business, and I’m experiencing that now. Can I get another 18 years out? But you can’t let fear get in your way, I refuse to let that happen. I don’t ever want to stop. That’s where the awareness comes, because this ride has been so blessed and I’m so grateful. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for every opportunity that comes my way, and that’s why it’s hard for me to say no. I can’t wait to work with someone new, to meet a new cast member, to have an interview like this, to meet a new up and coming young person. Everything about it excites me and so I hope I get another 18 years out of it. I don’t believe in limitations. 

I have a few questions, and I want to consider your entire career, and just reply with the first thing that comes to mind. Which show would you most want to return to?

Right now, The Color Purple. The other is Ragtime.

Which co-star would you want to work with again?

Josh Gad.

Which creative team would you most want to collaborate with again?

Oh man, I love the South Park team, but I love this one too. Wait, I can’t–this is too hard! Well, I can’t get enough of Bill Finn either. I would work with Leigh again – that was amazing for me. I’m going to say James Lapine, Bill Finn, and Leigh Silverman.

What is the most difficult role you’ve ever played?

Lala in The Colored Museum.

Which role has been most similar to you?

I’ve been blessed to always do character-like ladies, which is me. Believe it or not, probably the homeless lady in A New Brain. I got her immediately and she allowed me to just be. I didn’t have to put on any air, I could just be Rema and go out and be. I’m not a homeless lady, but I get it, and I get that mystical thing. You ever meet someone on the train or you see a homeless person and you wonder, maybe they’re in the real reality of everything. Or they say something so profound, and you wonder, is that really an angel?  I got that. And I feel like that about myself sometimes. I know I can play around and have a lot of fun, but I’m always thinking about my insight and thinking about people and situations and reading it. I think a lot, and I get that.

What is your favorite song that you’ve ever performed?

‘Change.’

What did you learn from someone you worked with that you will always keep with you?

I’ll always keep with me, it’s so prevalent in my head, John Doyle’s words ‘The acting is not the acting. It’s just telling the story. Keep it simple and stand there and tell it.’

This one’s a bit sillier. I’ve heard you talk about ‘colleague crushes.’ Who would be your top colleague crush?

Oh my God, am I allowed to say this? I’m in love with Aaron Lazar. Can I say that? He’s married! I think Josh Gad is brilliant. I love anybody quirky. Of course I have a crush on Andrew Rannells, that cutie-patootie. I loved Dan Fogler and Ana Gasteyer. That whole cast of A New Brain was brilliant. I kind of had crushes on everybody in that cast. Everyone was amazing. I love Josh Henry. I like good people, and he’s a good person. And I have a huge crush on Leigh Silverman.

If you weren’t an actress or performer, what would you want to do with your life?

I would probably be teaching somewhere. Teaching and event planning. Or something that involves traveling around the world. I used to dream of being part of the UN way back. I used to think about going into linguistics, but I didn’t know how that would serve me. I’ve been so focused like a racehorse with blinders on, I’ve never thought about anything else.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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