Meet ‘The Color Purple’ dance captain, Brian Harlan Brooks.
By Donalevan Maines
Brian Harlan Brooks promises love and redemption when the musical The Color Purple sweeps back to town this month to finish its Theatre Under the Stars engagement at the Hobby Center that was cut short last year by Hurricane Ike.
“I enjoyed very much being in Houston, and I am excited to come back and see the city up and running again,” Brooks said recently, by cell phone on a train to his home in Brooklyn from Washington, D.C., where American Idol star Fantasia played Celie in the musical version of the 1985 film, at Kennedy Center.
The national tour began in February 2007, following its Tony Award-winning debut on Broadway.
“Throughout the country, the show attracts a strong gay following, I think, for two reasons,” says Brooks, who is the musical’s dance captain and “swing,” the understudy covering all male ensemble roles. “One, there is the [lesbian] relationship between Celie and Shug Avery. It is much more pronounced than in the movie; it’s more like the book [the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker].
“The show delves further into how Celie comes to love herself—and finds the color purple within herself—through Shug’s love for her,” says Brooks. “Outside of her sister Nettie, who is taken from her, Shug is the first woman, the first person, the first human being, who loves Celie as a woman in totality.
“Many of us in the gay community have had to discover that universal feeling of love of our own making,” Brooks adds. “We think no one will ever love us, so when we do find love, it is empowering to us. I think that aspect of the show speaks volumes to the gay community.”
Men in playwright Marsha Norman’s book for the musical also come across better than they did in the movie, Brooks says.
“The show is about both love and redemption,” he explains. “Despite the circumstances, people see a lot more clearly that the character of Mister redeems himself—he is the catalyst for what happens at the end—and Harpo is also a redemptive person, so people leaving the theater don’t have an intense hatred for these men. Things come full circle for them.
“People are on their feet every night, and it’s not just because they think they’re supposed to be,” says Brooks. “They feel empowered, which is such a blessing for us. It makes us feel great.”
Brooks was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up in New Jersey. He trained at Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Ailey School before performing with dance companies in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City, where The Color Purple choreographer Donald Byrd enlisted him for the show’s national tour.
As dance captain and swing, Brooks spaces the show’s musical numbers, maintains the choreography, and makes corrections nightly. Contractually, he has the option of performing one role for three weeks at a time, and, practically, he usually goes on at least twice a week as replacement for an actor who plays Bobby, Buster, or — Brooks’ favorite — the African chief.
“We dance throughout the show, but there are three or four major dance numbers,” he says, including the 20-minute “African Homeland” that opens Act II.
A rousing church number is another dance highlight, along with “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town,” “Miss Celie’s Pants,” and “Push Da Button.”
“The costumes, by Paul Tazewell, are exquisite,” says Brooks. “The story takes place between 1909 and 1949, and he did painstaking research into those times so the costumes would be authentic and true. Cufflinks, ties, we wear different socks in every number, and the women all have purses, earrings, hat pins. They’re incredible.”
Seventeen persons or companies are listed as the show’s producer, but the name that shines above all is Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey shot to stardom when she played Sofia, and landed an Oscar nomination for her performance, in the film, which was directed by Steven Spielberg, starred Whoopi Goldberg, and scored 11 Academy Award nominations.
Brooks met Winfrey when the tour played Chicago. She attended a performance there, as well as in San Francisco, and the cast was invited to a taping of her daytime talk show.
In Houston, Brooks expects that he and other cast members will seek out dance clubs playing house music and hip-hop. He’s “single at the moment,” but thinks that it’s possible to maintain a relationship even while on the road.
“It might not really be possible to start a relationship when you’re on the road, but distance is just a small obstacle in the challenge in and of itself of finding a partner. Distance is just a plane ride or train ride away,” he says.
The Color Purple runs Aug. 18–23 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Tickets are available by phone at 713/558-8887; in person at the Theatre Under the Stars box office, 800 Bagby at Walker; or online at www.TUTS.com.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Lawanda Jackson and AJ Cabrera for this issue of OutSmart magazine.