“It’s hard to choose ‘The Color Purple’ without knowing you have a Celie,” says Paul Daigneault.
He found one.
Daigneault is producing artistic director of the SpeakEasy Stage Company and is directing the musical, which begins performances Friday. He’d wanted to do the show for a few years, and for a role like Celie, he would often have a performer in mind well in advance. But when auditions began last summer, he still had no idea who would play the part.
“It’s such a pivotal role,” he says. “It’s also an incredibly challenging role, because you start with this person who has no self-esteem, who basically lives her life staring at the floor and not making eye contact with anybody, because she’s been beaten down physically and mentally her whole life, and [ends up] this woman who is a leader of her community and has found her own sense of self-worth.”
Lovely Hoffman of Roxbury walked into a SpeakEasy open audition on June 12 last year. She had a modest R&B singing career and a handful of stage credits in Boston, including “Little Shop of Horrors” at New Repertory Theatre and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” at the Lyric Stage Company. But nothing like Celie.
“When she walked in the room, she was quiet and unassuming,” Daigneault says. “I expected her to be OK, but I didn’t expect that voice to come out of her. She left the room, and I said to Nick [Nicholas James Connell], my music director, ‘That could be our Celie.’ ”
It took two more auditions before he cast Hoffman in the lead. She even remembers being asked to sing for another role. But in the end, he told her to prepare to sing “I’m Here.”
‘That sense of resilience Celie has in terms of her story, there is a connection here. . . . And that is why I like the story of Celie.’
“It’s basically the 11 o’clock number, and I told her that I needed to see Celie’s transformation in that song, and she came in and nailed it,” Daigneault says. “A lot of people could sing that song, a lot of people could sing Celie, but she is the only one who I felt really emotionally connected to the character.”
The 2005 “Color Purple” Broadway musical is based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as well as the movie version starring Whoopi Goldberg. The story follows Celie from her life as an abused 14-year-old in the South at the beginning of the 20th century through ordeals imposed by race, class, and gender before she gains a measure of contentment in middle age.
“When she comes out of her shell in this pivotal scene in Act 2, I hope the audience is like, WHOA! Like I am,” Daigneault says. “You see her all of a sudden as this wall comes down and everything she’s wanted to say forever and ever comes out of her, and I really believe it,”
Hoffman has had her own hard times but identifies most with Celie’s perseverance.
She got bounced around a lot in childhood and, like Celie, was even separated from one of her sisters for a time. “That sense of resilience Celie has in terms of her story, there is a connection here,” Hoffman says. “Resilience is someone who goes through something and despite their obstacles they’re able to be successful in the end. And that is what Celie does. And that is why I like the story of Celie, because it’s a story of courage . . . of strength.”
Hoffman was adopted at age 11 and lights up when she talks of the stability and support she found with her new family. Her adoptive father, Bishop Edward W. Hoffman, is founder of Calvary Church International Ministries in Dorchester, and she has been singing in church ever since. She says it’s a natural transition from that to the show’s “fusion of gospel, soul, R&B, and ragtime.”
“Not only is the music something I’m used to, but also some of the experiences,” she says. “The church scene in the beginning [of the play]? That’s what my church would look like on any given Sunday. People jumping around, the call and response, people just excited to be there. Coming to be rejuvenated for the week, coming for hope, all those things. That connection is definitely there.”
Still, she has never played a role as big as Celie. “It’s really intense and it’s definitely a rite of passage for me as an actress and a singer,” she says.
Hoffman holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in secondary education from Boston College, where she minored in music as an undergrad. She is 32 but looks much younger. She spends most of her time teaching sixth-graders at the Smith Leadership Academy, a public charter school in Dorchester. That means an extra challenge in tackling a role like Celie.
“I leave work at 5, and the show’s at 7:30, and Celie, she does a lot of belting. She never leaves the stage,” she said. “I’m going to have to figure out how to balance myself and preserve myself in my breaks at work.”
Hoffman has taught at the school for nine years and “is one of those teachers anyone would love to have, super-energetic,” says Karmala Sherwood, executive director of the Smith school. “She is absolutely amazing.”
Among her projects, Hoffman got students working in a community garden and even took some eighth-graders on a field trip to a demonstration for mortgage reform in New York City, she says. She’s also active in a community group advocating social justice and fairness in housing.
And there’s more. She’s recorded a single that will be out soon. Her husband, Brandon German, is also her longtime manager.
Handling all her different tasks can be exhausting, she concedes. She was grateful for her Christmas vacation from school, and she took this week off from teaching to devote her full energies to rehearsal.
Hoffman got the school kids involved in “The Color Purple,” too. Learning that there were three small roles for children in the production, she encouraged students to try out and helped them prepare for the auditions. Six of them now alternate in the roles. And 190 students will be coming to a matinee next week, with tickets provided by a grant from MassIMPACT.