Star Turn for LaChanze in 'Color Purple'

By Erin McClam

It was nearing Sept. 11, 2002, and a group of artists was cobbling together "Brave New World," a three-day set of plays, songs and other performances to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Someone suggested including "A Song for LaChanze," an almost hymnal remembrance of Calvin Gooding, husband of the musical-theater actress LaChanze and a Cantor Fitzgerald trader killed in the World Trade Center.

Stephen Flaherty, who had composed the song, hesitated at first, though it was intended as a deeply personal gesture, a gift to LaChanze.

And then someone offered to sing it: LaChanze herself.

"She said, 'I'd like to sing it as a gift to Calvin,'" Flaherty recalls. "I don't know if I would have had it in me to be able to do that. It was incredibly simple and heartfelt and very moving."

For LaChanze, now starring in the Oprah Winfrey-backed Broadway musical "The Color Purple," work was a critical part of dealing with the prodigious loss she suffered on Sept. 11.

Asked specifically how she handled the grief, she takes in a deep breath and says, "Well, I got a sledgehammer, and I went to Tiffany's ... " She smiles: "I'm kidding." She has heard the question before.

"I have a great vehicle -- theater, drama," she says, turning serious. "I was very angry and hurt and disappointed, and sad and lonely, everything. But I was able to come to the theater and completely leave my world for a moment."

Four years later, in a way, it feels like the grieving is happening all over again.

In "The Color Purple," LaChanze plays Celie, the heavily burdened central figure of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel.

The character traces a vast emotional arc over four decades: Celie, separated from her sister and sold into an abusive marriage at 14, evolves by the curtain into a spiritually empowered, self-sufficient, world-wise heroine.

In a recent interview in her dressing room, a cozy space decorated with photos of her two daughters, 5 and 4 -- she was eight months' pregnant with the younger on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and with a can of her beloved chocolate macadamia nuts close by, LaChanze says her personal loss informs the role.

"This grieving, it helped me to understand how one would come out of that," she says. "Because I have come out of it. I was able to keep moving forward, keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think about that when I'm going through Celie's journey."

In the interview, it's hard to imagine LaChanze -- who has a warm, radiant smile and looks far younger than her 43 years -- as Celie, who's derided as ugly and plain by oppressive male characters in the show. Dressed comfortably in a full-length, deep-brown dress and with her hair falling just shorter than her shoulders, she is more enchanting than matronly.

Her performance drew raves, even while some reviewers were lukewarm or worse to the show itself. Yet buzz has already begun over LaChanze's prospects at snagging a Tony in June.

Director Gary Griffin sees parallels between LaChanze and Celie, each of them bound, he says, by a powerful, uncompromising moral code. He describes her as a terrific mother -- her daughters visit the theater regularly -- and a focused performer.

"Celie never loses sight of her mission," he says. "She emerges to me as the strongest character in the show. That core, that center, that's a quality the two of them share."

LaChanze has been cast in three shows for which Flaherty composed scores -- "Once on This Island," "Ragtime" and "Dessa Rose."

He says he marvels at her ability to balance a "wild, childlike sense of fun" with deeply rooted values. He describes her ability to come through her Sept. 11 loss as nothing less than heroic.

He cites her strong sense of responsibility to her daughters, Celia and Zaya.

"She said, 'Whenever you look and there's somebody that needs you, it doesn't allow you the luxury to just sit with your own thoughts. You have to be active,'" Flaherty says.

Walker's novel is told in part through Celie's letters to God and to her faraway sister, and LaChanze says her own spiritual upbringing included writing prayers and tucking them into the pages of journals she kept as a child.

Her mother gave LaChanze her first journal when she was no more than 7 or 8 years old, and the actress kept up the habit as she grew older.

"Much like Celie, that way of expressing how I feel is by writing it down and rereading it, getting it out that way," she says.

A burglar stole most of the childhood journals several years ago, but LaChanze still has each of them from about age 20 on and is struck when she reads them by how she always seems to be on "a mission of self-improvement."

But she hasn't written much lately, save for a theater journal she keeps to give to her children one day. Come to think of it, she says, she hasn't written much in her personal journals since her husband's death.

"I don't know why. I really don't," she says. "If I had to think about it, I'd say I've just been living."

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