Out actor Kyle Baird helps bring The Color Purple—and its lesbian subtext—to Houston.
By Don Maines
In the 2013 documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, the queer feminist author of The Color Purple tells writer/director Pratibha Parmar, “I’m not lesbian, I’m not bisexual, I’m not straight. I’m curious.”
So color me “curious” as to what extent Celie’s girl-crush on songbird Shug Avery will be on display when Houston’s Hobby Center hosts the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple as a musical, January 9–14.
A 1985 Steven Spielberg movie version reduced the couple’s mattress-dancing from Walker’s 1982 novel to a single kiss. Similarly, it seems, their love affair won’t be all that obvious to theatergoers, either.
“It is 100 percent different than it was portrayed in the book,” admits openly gay cast member Kyle E. Baird. However, he says, “I love the Celie-Shug love connection. My interpretation of their relationship is more about the guidance that Shug gives Celie than necessarily sharing a bed. Shug teaches Celie to appreciate herself sexually and to be emotionally present, and to treat herself to a new image [of herself].”
Rather than describing them as lesbian sweethearts, Baird says, “I think their relationship is just specific to them. I would have fallen in love with Shug because of her guidance. But I think, yes, the story will speak to the LGBTQ community and to anyone who has ever felt ostracized.”
Baird plays two characters in the show, beginning with Sofia’s second boyfriend, Henry “Buster” Broadnax, after she and Harpo break up. “In the book, Buster is written about in much greater detail,” says Baird, explaining that Walker wrote him as an ex-prizefighting boxer.
Physically, Baird fills the role at nearly six feet two inches tall. “I’m a big dude,” Baird says. “People usually ask me if I’m a football player.”
At 29, he adds, “I am old enough to know how, and young enough to still do it.”
Baird also plays Bobby in the musical, the book version of which was penned by Marsha Norman. The music and lyrics were written by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis.
“Bobby is a funny little character at the end of the show,” Baird says. “He gets to help Celie show this new and improved version of herself. He’s younger than her.” (This is not sounding like the lesbian I thought Celie to be.)
In the late 1980s, Baird was a baby in the small town of Ledyard, Connecticut, when Julia Roberts filmed Mystic Pizza in a nearby village. “My mother says she pushed me in a stroller when she walked around where the movie was being made. Later on, I even went to eat at Mystic Pizza,” he recalls, referring to the restaurant where the film’s story takes place.
Baird’s mother was the first to notice how her young, athletic son seemed more at home on a stage than a football field or basketball court.
Baird, who is single, graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, and settled into an apartment in the city’s Queens borough. He calls it “a rough slice of heaven.”
The Color Purple is Baird’s first time in a national tour, but it’s the third time he’s been part of a scaled-down version of a big, splashy Broadway show. “I got to be in Ghost the Musical when the owners wanted to get it back to its bare bones—what Bruce Joel Rudin intended when he wrote the screenplay and won the Oscar for the movie.” A six-piece acoustic chamber group played the score by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Glenn Ballard, who co-wrote Jagged Little Pill and “Man in the Mirror,” when Baird appeared in the revised production at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Baird also performed in Goodspeed Opera House’s abridged production of Show Boat in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Other credits include Chad in High School Musical and Seaweed in a production of Hairspray that played in the Ohio Valley. Audience reaction to the race-relations musical surprised Baird. “It was a great platform, especially in that part of the country, which is almost like the Bible Belt,” he says. “I remember some people telling us how much they enjoyed the show, but adding, ‘However, couldn’t you have changed the ending so that Seaweed ended up with his own kind?’”
In the show, Seaweed is black, and when he falls in love with Penny, who is white, even Penny’s prudish mother approves, seeing how happy Penny is with Seaweed. “‘His own kind?’” Baird says with a laugh. “We said, ‘You said you enjoyed the show so much, but you didn’t get the message!’”
What: The Color Purple
When: January 9-14
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
This article appears in the December 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.