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What's New on the Rialto

Isaiah Johnson
The Color Purple

Interview by Beth Herstein

Isaiah Johnson
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The revival of The Color Purple, which transferred from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, opened on December 10 to great reviews. The trio of female stars—Cynthia Erivo (Celie), Jennifer Hudson (Shug Avery), and Danielle Brooks (Sofia), all of whom are making their Broadway debuts—and the rest of the cast have been highly praised for their polished, moving performances. And director John Doyle has received kudos for his scaled-down version which sharpens the focus of the book and brings the characters to the fore.

Though the women are the heart, soul, and driving force of the show, a few men are significant parts of story as well. I recently conducted a telephone interview with Isaiah Johnson, who plays Celie's abusive husband and Shug's passionate lover Mister. The child of two performers who served in the military, Johnson initially led a peripatetic life, spending his first four years in Seoul, South Korea, and five years in Shreveport, Louisiana, before moving to Alaska, which became his home. Johnson started out pre-law in college but quickly switched to theater, obtaining his BFA from Howard University and his MFA from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Since then, he's been a semi-regular presence on Broadway, with roles in The Merchant of Venice, Peter and the Starcatcher, Side Show and, now, The Color Purple. Away from Broadway, he was Raymond in Far From Heaven opposite Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara; he toured with Kevin Spacey, including a stop at BAM, playing Lord Rivers and Scrivener in Richard III; and he starred as Harold Hill in an all-black concert production of The Music Man. We had a pleasant, interesting discussion about The Color Purple, as well as his other work, and the issue of race in the performing arts.

Beth Herstein:  It must be so exciting to be part of this show. I don't know if I've ever seen an audience so enthusiastic. What is it like for you?

Isaiah Johnson:  It's amazing. At the end, there's a point where everyone in the audience is of one accord about what it's like to be a human being. It's really beautiful. The audience has spent two hours watching us, but I wish for one moment they would know what it's like to be watching them. To see them seeing the world in a way they may not usually see it. It's a beautiful thing. What's really special is that you don't only see it, you feel it in the room. You can feel the love from the person next to you. When you come to the theater you might have been thinking something about them because of the way they look or the way they are behaving. By the end of the show [those preconceptions] are totally squashed.

BH:  In a recent NPR interview you spoke about how important it was for you to understand the trajectory of your character. Can you talk a little about that?

IJ:  I needed to find what Mister's journey was in terms of his specific actions in the lifetime of our play. Mister's character is unable to start the play in a neutral place because of all that has happened in his life before. My job is to track his impetus, the things that motivate him to act in a particular way. That being said, I think he lives with a chip on his shoulder, lives with a lot of guilt and regret for not having married the love of his life, and for listening to his father and staying home to work and live on this former plantation. I think he is experiencing what a lot of people experienced at that time in our history, with African Americans coming into their own after a lifetime of slavery. In the play, the Old Mister, my father, talks about being a slave on the property he now owns. I can only imagine what that must have been like, for both Old Mister and Mister. [Mister] starts off the play with a whip in his hand, which I can only assume he got from his dad. We know the history of whips in America, so who knows what energy may be in that piece of property as well. Although I do not behave the way Mister does, I have felt many of the emotions he must feel. My job is to bring that truth to the table.

BH:  You're working with an amazing group of performers, and a huge star in Jennifer Hudson. What has it been like working with this cast?

IJ:  It has been an amazing process. From the first day of rehearsals the cast immediately felt like a family, although most of us haven't worked together before. We immediately developed a community. They have all been very gracious, and the personalities are complementary. Jennifer was a perfect addition to that. She did not bring any sense of stardom to the room. She came in and was ready to work.

BH:  What has it been like working with John Doyle?

IJ:  John was a perfect match for [the show]—although he didn't think so at first, when he got the offer to direct the play in London. I loved one of the first things he said on the first day of rehearsals, during the meet and greet. He thought, "It should be directed by a woman, first and foremost, and second it probably should be directed by an African American." But, he looked over the material again, and he was able to draw parallels from his own life. He drew from every step of his life, even his personal journey here in America. He came to Georgia for grad school, from the Scotland hills. He definitely related to this journey in many ways. He shared this with us throughout the process, and that helped us to feel safe enough to do the same. We also trusted him enough to know that his primary focus was bringing the humanity to the production, just allowing us to be beautiful specimens on the stage and allowing us the freedom to express ourselves within the confines of the [show's] strict simplicity.

BH:  You went to Howard University intending to be pre-law but quickly switched to acting and got your BFA. I'm reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' book "Between the World and Me," and he talks about his time at Howard as transformative. Is that true for you as well?

IJ:  What makes Howard special is that it is one of the only places you can go to find the world's most brilliant minds as far as African-American professors and professors from the African diaspora in one area. Unfortunately, we don't live in a country where you see that every day. Most people don't even know the school exists. I think that most people don't know about HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities). That's fine, but it's deeply a part of American history. Many of those colleges were started by military officers, to provide colleges for their girls, who weren't educated at conventional colleges, and then they were expanded to include African Americans. Ultimately they became HBCU.

Howard was a beautiful, beautiful experience. You learn everything through a different lens, a different experience. In high school I learned about American history pretty much through a white American lens, but at Howard, I learned the other side of the coin. There's more to the story than what was in the textbook. Fortunately, for me, having grown up in a very diverse community, I was able to acquire a full, well-rounded education.

BH:  The African author Chinua Achebe said that he became a writer after reading stories about the white men and the savages as a child. He'd thought he was a white man, because he knew he wasn't a savage. He realized that someone needed to tell the story from the perspective of the Africans.

IJ:  All the perspectives are valid, but because we still live in an assimilated society, it's easy not to learn all sides of the story. You can go through a lifetime without knowing there is another side. When I've taught, I've learned that a lot of students lack all the elements of a well-rounded education. The textbooks they have—they don't always have teachers who are challenging them to think by asking, "What are the other possibilities?"

BH:  You appeared in Far from Heaven with a very pregnant Kelli O'Hara. (laughter)

IJ:  That was so fun. That was actually my introduction into musical theater. Most people didn't know that I was a singer before that. Thank God for timing. Everything worked out perfectly. I always say that I got the role because Brandon Victor Dixon, who did the role at Williamstown, was unavailable. (laughs) So, they were looking for a new voice.

BH:  In an NPR interview, you talked about other instances of serendipitous timing. You were cast in the Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice because a friend told you one of the cast members from Central Park had a conflict and couldn't be in the Broadway show. You've also talked about how exciting it was to work with Al Pacino.

IJ:  It's funny because we're now on West 45th Street at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, in between Al Pacino in the new Mamet play, China Doll, and James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Gin Game. I worked with Al in the Merchant of Venice, but James Earl Jones came to see the show a couple of times. He left me a personal note telling me how much he enjoyed my performance as Prince of Morocco ... We've had a few run-ins again since then. The timing, this time, has put me between two of my most influential artists.

BH:  You were also in Peter and the Starcatchers. You've talked about working with Roger Rees, who co-directed that show, and what a big loss his passing was to you.

IJ:  It was a huge loss to the theater community as a whole. He was such a brilliant performer and then such a great professor and teacher. It was so exciting to watch him direct, because he always directed from the optimistic point of view that only an actor could direct from. Also, there was Alex Timbers, and of course the wonderful, wonderful team. That was one of those productions where I almost wish we could have rehearsed it for a year. It was such a joy to play with and work on, I wouldn't have cared if it ever had gotten to the stage. (laughs)

BH:  That was such a spare set and it left so much to the audience's imagination.

IJ:  Yes, and a big kudos goes to the amazing Steven Hoggett who added the quality of movement that allowed that simplicity to be translated onstage.

BH:  You starred as Harold Hill in an all-black concert production of The Music Man. What was the same, and what was different, about the production?

IJ:  The majority of the people who came to the production were not black, but they totally, absolutely were thrilled and loved it because the music was the same. The songs were communicated from a different perspective that still worked. I personally—and I have had many conversations about this with other people—am not necessarily a fan of turning every work of art into a black version. We still have to respect artists and writers—their perspective and their intent. If their intent was not for the production to be done using African Americans ... then we should not do it. I only support it if it can be dramaturgically defended. As for The Music Man, there was surprisingly a large community of African Americans in Iowa, either escaped slaves or people who went there post-emancipation. I know these people. I grew up with these people. I hope that someday somebody examines that production because it was truly exciting.

BH:  A lot of productions reimagine Shakespeare, changing the period and introducing multicultural casting. I saw the all female productions at St. Ann's of Julius Caesar and Henry IV. It worked much better than I would have imagined.

IJ:  Maybe because we're so far removed from the historical context of [Shakespeare's] work, we can do whatever we like with it. There's a lot of room for the imagination. The history plays are written based on actual people. He reimagined those stories. The audiences that were privy to that history could readily identify with those actors. Women of the time were unavailable to be actors, but if they were I'm sure he would have been more than happy to have them play the parts, as he was more than happy to have men play the female parts. Now, there are people of color everywhere, so there's no reason to [limit casting]. The other side of it too, is that people might say there's no reason African-American playwrights should only write for African-American actors. I read that there was a production of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop in which they double cast the characters, and one of the actors playing Martin Luther King was a white man. She objected to that because of the subject matter of the play.

BH:  It's a tricky line, sometimes, when casting should be based on color and when it can break away from it. But, the changes in casting have really revolutionized the way we see theater. People can play twins, and be from different racial and ethnic origins. After the first or second time it's done, it seems natural.

IJ:  I think it's our responsibility to do that. Through art, we were able to accept Obama as President. We'd already had Morgan Freeman play a president in the movie, and Dennis Haysbert played the president in the television show "24." All that was before Obama was elected. People more readily accept that once they've seen it portrayed that way.

Antoine L. Smith, Patrice Covington, Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, and Danielle Brooks
Photo by Matthew Murphy
BH:  Back to The Color Purple—in the past you've talked about finding rhythm in the song, finding the story in the song. I wanted to ask you about that in the context of this show. Mister has a song in which he reveals his personal story. How did you find your way into the story of that song? What were some of the challenges?

IJ:  You find your way by looking at clues in the text to help identify the characters, starting to embody the journey you've been on. What's challenging is that, by the time you get to hear Mister's story in his big song, you're into act two of the play. Mister is piecemeal throughout the story, then we have this big dramatic moment where he reveals himself. You learn that he was beaten by his father, that his first wife left him for another man and then she died, that he didn't kill her. We get it in this truncated context. I wish we could build up to that song a little more [naturally]. I almost wish that song was in act one. Then act two could be about watching him try to get back into Celie's good graces, and try to deal with the world around him, now that he realizes who he is and how negatively that has affected his life. It's also a challenge because it's literally different every night because my relationship to the audience is different, and I have to find my way into the song partly based on that relationship.

Originally, Mister had two more songs. They wrote [the one still in the show] at the last minute, something like the night before opening. You can hear it a little bit in the music, I think. John and I wanted to treat this song like a soliloquy, because there are a lot of interesting lines in the song but not as much music. We approached it like dialogue rather than full song.

BH:  I know you're between the matinee and the evening show so you've got to run. Is there anything else you want to add?

IJ:  I want to thank all the audiences for their willingness to take this journey with us. We've genuinely been enamored with them and the reactions we've gotten. The feeling that we all have collectively in the theater is so pure and sincere. We've chosen to break through the fourth wall in this production, and that wouldn't be possible if the audiences weren't willing.

The Color Purple at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For performance and ticket information, visit

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