Last seen at the American Repertory Theater four years ago as the rafter-raising condemned wife in “Best of Both Worlds,” Jeannette Bayardelle has the kind of powerhouse voice that ensures she’ll never be consigned to the chorus — at least, not for long. While still enrolled at New York’s Hunter College, majoring in lab sciences, she toured Europe with a pre-Broadway “Sister Act” revue, then plied the seas with a cruise ship troupe (“Humble beginnings!” she laughs). Her first brush with Broadway had her serving as a “swing” — all-purpose understudy — in “The Color Purple,” for which she covered no fewer than 11 roles. When it came time to replace LaChanze in the lead, she emerged as the natural choice.
Bayardelle came away from “The Color Purple” aching to relate a story closer to home: a comparable tale of oppression and salvation involving a young woman, a fledgling writer, whose voice was nearly silenced. The result is the solo tour de force “Shida” (short for “Rashida”). Not only did Bayardelle write the text and music — a spirited blend of gospel, R&B, rock, and jazz — she plays a half-dozen roles, ranging from a starry-eyed schoolgirl to a drug-pushing “playa.” While preparing to bring her developing work to the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon space at ART artistic director
Diane Paulus’s invitation, Bayardelle shared some of her history.
Q. These days all the smarter actors seem to be creating their own material, the better to exhibit their talents. But “Shida” comes across as a story that you felt compelled to tell. It’s not just a showcase.
A. Absolutely. It’s a true story, based on my childhood best friend.
Q. You play so many roles in “Shida,” I lost count.
A. It’s about six: the mother, the teacher, Shida, her friend Jacky, Uncle Steve, Joe the drug dealer. . .
Q. And they’re all so clearly differentiated.
A. That’s one of the compliments I always get: how I move in and out of each character — I guess they say “gracefully.” Which is thanks to the director, Andy Sandberg.
Q. I understand that you’re hoping to take “Shida” to Broadway eventually. In that case, would you open it up, or keep it as a solo show?
A. I’m not sure. But we definitely want to take this to Broadway.
Q. Were you active in theater as a child?
A. I was not. I was introduced to theater at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. I took a class called “Audition Prep,” and it was there that I was introduced to musical theater. Now I can’t get enough. What better way to tell a story than through everything that you have — singing, acting, dancing, wardrobe, lighting? I mean, it’s the perfect platform.
Q. But you must have shown some talent just to get into LaGuardia.
A. It was just mainly singing. I grew up singing in church. I’ve always been a “character” to my family, you know? But I wasn’t really focusing on the acting thing.
Q. And it was in grade school that you met the real Shida. Are you still in touch?
A. When I decided to write this piece, I reconnected with her and told her my dreams about what I wanted to do with the show. Once I got it done, I did a private viewing for her. She didn’t say, “Oh, don’t write it like this,” or “Don’t do like this.” She totally trusted me to tell the story. And now she loves it. She told me that I actually helped her not to be ashamed of her past.
Q. That’s so important. Because we all make mistakes in our youth, and you can’t just disown the person that you were.
A. She’s still not where she wants to be, but she has definitely turned her life around. Last summer, when we did the show, she found out she was pregnant. So now she’s enjoying the wonders of being a new mom.
Q. I have to ask: When you were starring as Celie in “The Color Purple,” did you get to meet Oprah?
A. I did! I got to meet Oprah plenty of times. She stays very involved with the cast.
Q. And did she have any feedback for you?
A. She always knows what to say. She just told me how proud of me she was, that she really enjoyed my interpretation of Celie, and, you know, “Continue the good work.”