Walking down Broadway in New York City has always been an emotional experience for me. The stretch of West 45th street leading up to the Minskoff Theatre brings up a particularly intense tornado of memories and tears. That’s because, 23 years ago, The Lion King did not live there. Back then it housed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, of which I was a cast member. Performing on that stage was the first time I understood how important it is to love what you do – a feeling I’ve been chasing ever since my last curtain call on The Great White Way all those years ago.
I was nine years old when my school choir in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables to audition for our role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We won the job and embarked on an amazing six-month-long journey of homeschooling and performing in a professional musical theater several days a week. On stage, I felt alive. I even began fantasizing about a career on Broadway. From there, I continued acting and performing in school plays and dance recitals throughout middle school. While I never made it back to Broadway, I had the opportunity to play Sandy in Grease, and to perform a solo in one of the big closing numbers in my middle school’s remake of Little Shop of Horrors.
But come high school, my interests took me elsewhere. I traded my choir and drama club memberships for after-school clubs like the Pan-African Alliance, the NAACP Youth Council, and the Haitian Club, all of which allowed me to tap into other parts of myself. Through them, I explored public-speaking and learned how to effectively deliver my ideas. My theater participation became limited to talent shows with the Pan African Alliance. But every time I went to see a Broadway show, I envisioned myself back up on that stage again one day.
When the time came to apply for colleges, however, my Haitian parents had other plans for what I should be doing with my life. They said that theater was just a hobby and encouraged me to pursue a more stable career and salary instead of trying my luck in a field where, if we’re being honest, a lot of people don’t make it. Hearing them say “no” to my dreams crippled my confidence so much that I became afraid to vocalize what I truly wanted. Even worse, my ability to enjoy musicals was ruined – all I could see when I watched them was what could have been.
Defeated, I channeled my energy into earning my creative writing degree from Montclair State University and tried to forget about the thrill I felt from being on stage. Following graduation, I earned my master’s degree in public and organizational relations, and not long after that, I moved to New York City to work as an account executive for Yelp. I enjoy what I do – helping business owners grow their companies – but living in the epicenter of the theater world, a short train ride from Broadway, also presented a unique set of challenges. So last year, after overcoming some emotional and financial setbacks, I finally decided to put myself first and chase down my happy. Because why not?
After many years of worrying about other people’s opinions, I reclaimed control of my life and started hushing the “no.” I took it so far as to say “yes” to anything that scared me. First on the list? Going to see some Broadway shows again. And it just so happens that my first play of 2016 — The Color Purple — inspired some deep self-reflection.
As I walked through the sea of tourists crowding the streets toward Jacobs Theatre, I worked hard to keep my doubts at bay. Being that it wasThe Color Purple, a story that focuses on the life of African American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, I was a bit surprised to see how many White people were in line. When I’d mentioned the play to a few of my White colleagues, most weren’t aware of the book that is considered a literary classic among African Americans, that a movie version of the story debuted in 1985, or that the play opened on Broadway more than 10 years earlier in 2005. But to my surprise, the majority of people—these men and women who did not look like me – really were there to see The Color Purple.
The show opens with a church scene, and man did those actors take the audience to church! We were on our feet, and you would have thought we were all Baptists. From that first scene, I knew that this play was going to keep me at the edge of my seat, and it did.
The story touches on sexism, racism, and gender roles, and it serves to remind the audience that self-love and happiness are the most valuable things anyone can own. There were several standing ovations throughout the play, but the longest came in a moment when one of the characters, Celie, took control of her own happiness and decided to love herself. I was so engulfed by her performance I completely forgot about my own fears and resentments. It felt like a wave of relief was washing over me. Finally, I had beaten the “no” mentality that was holding me back, and in doing so I’d allowed myself to return to my first love: musical theater.
The Color Purple gave me the confidence to pursue the things that excite me, whatever they are. I may not have realized my original dream of becoming a Broadway actor, but I’ve reclaimed my ability to enjoy something I love, even if performing isn’t ever going to be how I make my living. Right now, I’m working on my goals for 2017. One thing I already know that I want to continue working on is “doing” rather than “talking about doing” something. Going to see The Color Purple was a good first step toward achieving that. It showed me that I’m who’s in control of my happiness and that just by believing in myself, I can find my happy in more places than I ever thought.
Images courtesy of Myrna Datilus