by Sarah Katz
Cynthia Erivo defied odds by making her Broadway debut in the revival of The Color Purple and won the Tony Award for Best Actress for her riveting performance as Celie Harris. It’s a rare feat to win a Tony Award for a Broadway debut but for Erivo, who brings her heart and soul every night as the downtrodden but ever-hopeful Celie, it makes perfect sense.
Born to Nigerian immigrants in Stockwell, South London, Erivo was not originally on the path to becoming a performer. In college, Erivo studied music psychology but left after a year to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the oldest drama schools in the United Kingdom. The theatre community must be grateful that Erivo chose to change her career plan when she did.
Erivo got her start playing roles on British television shows like Chewing Gum and The Tunnel. Her acting career then took her to the stage. She played Sister Mary Clarence and Deloris Van Cartier in the U.K. tour of the musical Sister Act. For Erivo, playing Celie Harris in 2015 was a homecoming. She first took on the role in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of The Color Purple in London in 2013. She then appeared in London’s West End in the musical I Can’t Sing! The X-Factor Musical.
With numerous theatre credits under her belt, Erivo seemed to be making a name for herself in the London theatre circuit. However, everything changed when she was cast in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple. With a cast that included Academy Award and Grammy Award winner Jennifer Hudson and Orange is the New Black star Danielle Brooks, it seemed Erivo would be overshadowed by her two famous co-stars. But, contrary to what many assumed, it is Erivo’s electrifying performance that brings the house down every night.
For those unable to see the stunning new production of The Color Purple, the Tony Awards telecast had it covered. The Color Purple performance was one of the highlights of the night. Danielle Brooks and Heather Headley (who took over the role of Shug Avery from Hudson) began the medley with a soulful rendition of “Mysterious Ways.” But when Erivo came out under a single spotlight, all eyes were on her.
Erivo sang the 11 o’clock number “I’m Here” with both the power and gentleness that it needed. The song portrays Celie finally loving herself for who she is. Every lyric Erivo sang was full of emotion and depth. Her performance was the only one of the night that garnered a standing ovation from the audience.
In a moving acceptance speech, Erivo thanked her mother and fellow cast members for their encouragement and for the love they had shown her. She praised The Color Purple production team and thanked the show “for giving her all the tools she needed to tell a story that everybody needs to hear.” Erivo ended her speech by thanking the American Theatre Wing for “making a London girl very, very happy.”
Erivo, like her character Celie, is here and she won’t going anywhere anytime soon.