TBB Talks To … Adebayo Bolaji About His Role as Harpo In Color Purple UK Stage Show

This summer The Color Purple receives its European musical premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

With a fresh, uplifting score of jazz, ragtime, gospel, and blues, the production runs from 5 July until 14 September, with press night at the Southwark venue on 15 July.

Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple follows the inspirational Celie and her trials, tribulations, and triumphs as a young African American woman in 1930s Georgia. A tale of stirring family drama and personal empowerment, Celie journeys from childhood through joy, despair, hope, and anguish, to discover the power of love and life.

Directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle (Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show at Menier, and Mack and Mabel) will direct and design The Color Purple will star Cynthia Erivo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Sister Act: The Musical – UK tour) as Celie; Christopher Colquhoun (Casualty, Five Guys Named Moe);  Nicola Hughes (Porgy & Bess) as Shug; Adebayo Bolaji (Ghost) as Harpo; .

The British Blacklist has spoken to the four lead stars of this iconic production…introducing Adebayo Bolaji who plays Harpo…

Let’s talk about your role as Harpo…

About two years ago there was a buzz among the actors that after Broadway run that it was going to come here, and I was already like if I get this production that’s the role I wanna do. There’s no one else for me to play. If I was older I’d have said let me be Mister. It’s such a memorable film I remember watching it with my family and no one’s ever forgot it; it’s just huge.

How have you approached being Harpo?

When a production of such a huge thing has been done it’s always expected that it’s like the film. Then there’s the actors, where you don’t really want to do a carbon copy of their version. So I haven’t gone near the film since hearing I got it.

If I’m going to be truthful to who the character is then the best source is the actual book by Alice Walker herself. It’s very detailed as to who this guy actually is because the film is just another interpretation of the book. So my approach has been I’ve read the book and I’ve been looking at young black men of that time and what type of environment they would have grown up in.

Not to bore you but Harpo I guess, when you read the book, a lot of the men in that book are sort of portrayed in a very particular way in that culture. They’re all very hard hitting, look down on a woman. Whereas he (Harpo) as a main character really he doesn’t have that sort of feeling towards women. He’s genuinely a good-natured person…

It’s interesting that you said that,  because Harpo in the film was portrayed as a bumbling fool, yet you managed to tune in to his sensitivities?

I personally grew up in a household with a lot of women and men around me. My dad only came into my life in my early teens, so in the very early days of my life, it was my mum who brought me up. So I think maybe sensitivity from my mother and the women around me maybe rubbed off a bit, but I’ve got four brothers who were typical alpha males. I think luckily I had a good balance. I grew up being one of the youngest so I could step back and see what was the right thing to do from those before me as opposed to being the first or second born…

How is this American story being told through a UK vision?

What the director wanted to hammer out was that the characters weren’t inherently bad its more that people are victims of a circumstance. Men around that time and generation it was closer to slavery, in terms of the African American man that man had to be strong and stand up and be in a world where they were inflicted by the race hatred towards them and ironically would have taken that home and frustration possibly without knowing inflict it on their wives at home. I think our production is trying to show a 3d version of that thing, where no one is just bad. If it’s a male or even a woman acting a certain way it is because they’re a victim of circumstance.

What’s the schedule of rehearsing been like, are you prepared for the multiple live shows?

It’s been really great. Director John Boyles is amazing to work with. The schedule is very organised. Lunch is at the same time every day so everybody gets into a routine.

The hardest part, it’s funny because playing this role wearing my own clothes which of course are completely different to what this character would wear and I guess having to get into someone’s awkwardness and someone whose dad has beaten him down so is trying to find some confidence, whereas I don’t consider myself as someone who doesn’t have confidence. So trying to play someone who isn’t like that, took a while to adjust…

Who do you lean on for support from your cast?

Everyone. The director made it very important from the beginning that the most important thing is we’re here to tell a story. A really important story and once that’s our focus then it kind of enables you to not worry about criticism, gives yourself patience going into a role. Because the story is the most important thing in the room.

What’s your take on the current trend in black stories on mainstream British Stages?

Whether it’s a black or white production or whatever, whenever productions are being done at the West End it’s always the old plays which are being re-done. Even now we have the all black version of Julius Caesar that’s gone to New York. I’m also a writer so it seems that a theatre that may want to produce from a black writer would be one that specifically spoke about black issues as opposed to human issues with black actors. You think of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, it wasn’t just about people in the ghetto it was people in a community and I don’t feel that happens enough here. There’s some sort expectation that if you do bring a piece of theatre and you’re black they expect you to talk about what the media portray about the black community which unfortunately is connected to knife crime gun crime it’s all themed.

You had a small role in blockbuster James Bond film Skyfall, how has the journey been for you as a British Black actor?

I’ve been really really blessed and lucky and I can’t complain if I’m honest. But since last year with my new agent Gavin I’ve been seen for all sorts and that’s never been colour specific, just a male in his mid-20s / 30s. Then the other side, the shows which tell black stories I’m being seen for as well. But I do have to say funny enough there was a period where  I felt left out of black shows. People didn’t want to see me for black productions, so there was a time I wouldn’t know who any of the black directors were. But it has changed in the last two years.

What’s next for you after The Color Purple?

I’m doing the Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic. Rehearsals start literally the day after the last day of this.


 The Color Purple runs from 5th July – 14th September 2013 and tickets can be bought from http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/


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