“It’s so well known,” Augustine says. “When I had the chance to audition, I knew it was a momentous opportunity for an African-American actress. You don’t often get the chance to tell our stories. It spans a 30 to 40 year span in Celie’s life — who she is and who she will be, and the women God brings to her life. It’s one generation away from slavery and everyone is dealing with the transformation, from being property to being their own people and learning how to treat each other.”
The performer lived in Atlanta for a number of years and was seen in the Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s version of “Little Shop of Horrors” before she moved to New York. Her first big touring show was “The Pajama Game”
Augustine was touring with her own band when “The Color Purple” had its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre so she had to miss it, but she did catch it on Broadway. She feels that Walker’s book is very similar to the stage version and gets to show more than the Steven Spielberg film version, which many said diluted the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug.
“The movie is different but the themes and characters are the same,” she says. “The movie version, for instance, doesn’t get to include Mister’s reconciliation with Celie. You also don’t get to see Celie and Shug grow old together.” She admits she was not a fan of the movie.
Augustine is happy that the lesbian relationship is handled matter-of-factly in the musical. “I think in the play the producers wanted it to be as realistic as possible,” she says. “There is truth and love and it is done very well. They don’t sugar-coat the relationship.”
She acknowledges that the musical’s frankness jolts some audiences. Some audience members have left when they discover the lesbian content.
Her job as an actress, she says, is to make Shug as realistic as possible.
“My focus is on what makes her who she is,” she says. “She is a nightclub singer, and she has gone through some hard things in her life. But I don’t play the wild side. She has her own spirituality and strength. She is a strong character.”
For those who have never seen the stage version, Augustine notes some people may be a little sceptical going in, since the material can be dark.
“Most people don’t know; they think it will be sad, but they wind up happy,” she says.
Everyone can relate to the character of Celie, who has a lot of unpleasant things happen to her but eventually triumphs and becomes her own person, Augustine believes.
“Celie feels like she is worthless,” she says. “We all feel that way. We all feel we deserve better, and think ‘why are we going through this? Where do I fit in?’ We are all trying to fit into this world. But God does pay attention to her.”
When Celie’s sister Nettie returns from Africa at the end of the show, it reminds the actress of a time when, after Katrina, she had to look for family members in New Orleans not knowing if they were alive.
“I can relate to so much Celie is going through,” she says.
While “The Color Purple” is popular everywhere it travels, it resonates especially in the South where people are familiar with the novel and can relate to the characters the most, says Augustine.
Top photo: Taprena Augustine plays Shug Avery as the lesbian-inclusive musical ‘The Color Purple’ returns to the Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Suchman)