Fantasia Inspires Fans, Brings Love To 'The Color Purple'

Many remember Fantasia Barrino as Season Three winner on the hit reality television singing competition American Idol. Now, Fantasia stars as Celie in the Washington, D.C., run of The Color Purple. Host Michel Martin speaks to the electrifying singer about American Idol, her role on Broadway, motherhood, and the role of Celie has changed her life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Her singing took the country by storm during the third season of "American Idol," where she beat out another newcomer named Jennifer Hudson to win Idol's top prize.

Ms. FANTASIA BARRINO (Musician): (Singing) Shine my light for all to see, 'cause anything is possible when you believe...

MARTIN: She's recorded two albums, published her memoirs and went to Broadway in the adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple." And she's entered the realm of stars where only one name is necessary. Fantasia is now reprising the role of Celie in the Washington, D.C., run of "The Color Purple," and she was kind enough to let us stop by when she was taking a pause before a performance one afternoon. Fantasia, thank you so much.

Ms. BARRINO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Are you one of those performers who's superstitious about reviews? Some performers don't like to hear reviews. Are you superstitious?

Ms. BARRINO: No.

MARTIN: Okay, good, because I'm going to read this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: (Reading) Fantasia not only carries off the whole stage-acting thing in "The Color Purple" but also practically carries the entire lumbering musical on two solid shoulders. She is, in other words, a wonder, a natural, an ample reason to go and find the joy in the more satiny moments of a sometimes syrupy evening in the Kennedy Center Opera House. That is high praise from a person who is not known to drink the Kool-Aid, as people say. How does it feel? How does it feel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: Oh wow. It feels good. It really does. It feels good. Sometimes, I know this sounds weird, but sometimes I wish I could come out of my body and sit in the audience and see what people see.

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. BARRINO: Because when I hear what they say, or when I see their faces, or they cry, I just, I want to see. I'm like, wow. They say you touched me, or you really embodied the role. You are Celie. One woman said you're not Fantasia when you step out on the thing. I was like, that's Celie. I was like, really? And she's like yes. So it makes me feel good. But I just wish as if I could see that.

MARTIN: Had you had a desire growing up to be on Broadway? Was that something that you aspired to?

Ms. BARRINO: No. Actually, "The Color Purple" was my first Broadway show I'd ever seen.

MARTIN: The first one you'd ever seen?

Ms. BARRINO: I'd never seen a Broadway show.

MARTIN: How did you get that role? I understand that it's the stuff of legend now.

Ms. BARRINO: All right. They tricked me - no, just playing. I had been performing in New York for a while, doing my shows with my music, and I remember, I arrived by the theater, and I was like, oh, I want to see that show because I loved the movie. And my manager at the time, she called me and said, well, they invited you, they gave me some free tickets. And we went, and I was like, wow, they do this every night? The stage was moving, and everything was going. I was blown away. Never seen no Broadway. Seen some plays in North Carolina when we create plays but nothing on this level.

And she says, they want to take you out to eat afterwards. So I'm thinking, they must really like me. So we get the restaurant, and they pull out this paper, and it had my name on the marquee. And I said that is so pretty. Can I have that? And he says yes, only if you be my Celie.

MARTIN: You did not see that coming.

Ms. BARRINO: Uh-uh. So even then, I told them, you've got to give me some time because I like to pray about everything I do because if I'm going to do it, I want to do my best at it. And I remember going home, and I prayed, and I told my mom, I kept thinking. I kept nodding my head, no, no, no, me be Celie? I did my movie, and that was a little difficult, but I worked with Debbie Allen on my Lifetime movie, but now...

MARTIN: The movie which was an adaptation of your memoir about your own personal story.

Ms. BARRINO: And that was, you know, it was easier.

MARTIN: You're playing yourself.

Ms. BARRINO: I'm playing myself. I'm touching situations I probably didn't want to go back to, but here I am going on Broadway playing Celie. I prayed about it, and my mother came to me in the room one day, and she says, you might as well call them. It's yours. And I called them. I said I guess I'm your Celie, and here I am.

MARTIN: What made you say yes?

Ms. BARRINO: I guess they'd seen something in me that I didn't see in myself. And God, I believe, always opens doors, and here's a door that he had opened. How dare I sit back and say no to it? The way it came to me, I had to do that. And I always tell people, yeah, I don't think it's something I wanted to do. It's something I had to do.

MARTIN: I've been thinking about that because your own life has not been an easy one. You're still a young woman - very young.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And yet you have lived a lot. You have had many experiences, some of them not ones we would wish on anyone.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You have suffered sexual abuse.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Physical abuse. This role requires that you live there eight times a week.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What's that like?

Ms. BARRINO: It's a lot. It takes a lot of discipline. I always like to say though, I'm doing it because I'm touching somebody who's been through some of the same things who probably didn't overcome or come out like I came out. I overcame mines. Some people don't overcome. They end up on drugs. They end up alcoholics. They end up on the streets prostituting. So if I can be an example and touch somebody, then I'm going to do it. I didn't want to do this role.

MARTIN: And I see there are actually tears coming down your cheeks, actually all of ours to be honest. What are you feeling right now?

Ms. BARRINO: You know, people don't know that it takes a lot. It's like a ministry and I carry that. When I first did it in New York, I didn't know how to come out of character, so that was heavy on me. And I would call my mama and I would say, I can't do this anymore. I can't do it. I don't know who I am anymore. But this time is different because I know how to come out of character. Thank God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: But when I began to see those people when they walk out of the building, and they're crying, and men are crying, and I see that God has placed me here for a reason.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Fantasia. She is starring once again as Celie in a stage adaptation of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." She's currently appearing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

You know what's hard for me - what was hard for me in watching you in that performance? Watching the play and having read the book, and I think this is hard for a lot of African-American women - a lot of women in general, but African-American women, is hearing the people in your life continually call you ugly…

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …over and over again. People call you ugly. She's so ugly. So many women struggle with worthiness and feeling judged by their looks, is that hard to hear that day after day…

Ms. BARRINO: Every night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …every day?

Ms. BARRINO: Every day.

MARTIN: I just want to say for the record, you are lovely.

Ms. BARRINO: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The eight people who never saw you on "American Idol."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I just want to clarify that. But is that hard?

Ms. BARRINO: Yes. It's hard. You know, Celie, she's not to me, the way I see her, she's not ugly. I see Celie as being beautiful because that's the woman that I've become to know. But she's been told she's ugly by everybody. She begins to put her head down.

MARTIN: A lot of the critics have noted the way you - your whole body takes on the sense of being beaten down.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Is that where that came from, that closing in on itself?

Ms. BARRINO: Yes. It's kind of like she wants to stay in her own world. I'd rather just stay down here rather than look you eye to eye just to hear you say the same thing to me. And I got to give you this example. I have to give you this example. The other night, I don't normally see people in the audience because I'm always, I'm in the role, I'm gone. But the other night, this one night, I see this young girl in the front row. We're at the end now and we do this song...

(Singing) It take a grain of love...

Everybody's clapping with us. Everybody's up on their feet but this one little girl, but she's in the chair and she's boo-hooing in the theater. She's going. And at the end we do this thing...

(Singing) Ah...

And I say...

(Singing) ...men.

And I looked at her mother and I told her mother to tap her and I said, may amen to her. And she fell down. So I told the people backstage. I said can you get her and bring her to my room because I wanted to know what she was going through and what she took from the play. She's 14 years old, low self-esteem, felt ugly, didn't feel like she belonged. She felt like nobody even loved her. I said, so how do you feel now? She didn't even call me Fantasia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: She called me Celie. Well you went through this and you went through that and, but you came out. And she felt so much better. And I said okay, God, that's why I do this play, for that 14-year-old girl. And she was pretty, a tall pretty girl. I said, you're pretty. But to her, somebody must be teasing her or picking on her. You never know. She could've been touched, molested, anything. But when she left this building Celie gave her a whole new look at things. So I embody that role. I take it on.

When I put my outfit on, I'm no longer Fantasia. I am Celie. And it's weird. I never thought I would be saying that, but I am that woman when I'm on that stage and people are being touched. It's a must that everybody, men, because it allows men to see how women should be treated, how they should talk to women. These young boys out here, they need to see this play.

Every young girl needs to get in this building, because what they don't know and what society has made you feel like you have to be a certain way to be pretty. But beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, short hair, long hair, short little nose, big nose, big lips, it doesn't matter. You're beautiful and Celie finally realizes that when I begin to sing "I'm Here." She finally says, you know what? I don't need Shug Avery to love. I got my hands. She has a home. Just the small things that we tend to get up every day and forget about.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Where she sings.

Ms. BARRINO: Yes.

MARTIN: I think we should play a little bit of "I'm Here."

(Soundbite of song "I'm Here")

Ms. BARRINO: (Singing) I'm gonna take a deep breath. I'm gonna hold my head up. I'm gonna put my shoulders back and look you straight in the eye. I'm gonna sing out. Sing out, yeah. I'm beautiful.

Unidentified Woman: All right.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheers)

MARTIN: We were speaking earlier about the fact that you had to learn how to leave the character at the theater and not carry it around with you all the time.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Are there any other differences in reprising the role now than when you were on Broadway earlier? Is there anything else you've noticed that's different?

Ms. BARRINO: Yes. I'm different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: I've grown. I've gotten rid of a lot of baggage. I had a lot of people trying to come after me, take away from me.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. BARRINO: Whew. I guess that's the industry. And a lot of people, when they feel like you don't know, they take advantage of that.

MARTIN: What other similarity between you and Celie? She was forced into the separation from children in a very cruel way.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But one of the circumstances of your work is that you have to be separated from your child now.

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask, how do you deal with that?

Ms. BARRINO: That's difficult. But I was smart this time. She's with me.

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: She's with me this time.

MARTIN: So what's she doing? Summer camp or...

Ms. BARRINO: Summer camp and gymnastics. So she's here and, and still I'm here at the theater all day, every day, and I've missed a lot of years with Zion from being on the road. She's been with my mother and she's about to be eight. So for seven of those years I've been on the road and she's been at home.

MARTIN: Does that add something to that moment where you are in the play - I don't think I'm giving anything away, I hope - reunited with your children? Does that add a little element to it?

Ms. BARRINO: Yes. Because being a mom, you know, with Celie I understand how she feels as a mom and she gets her kids taken away from her at the age of 14. That's young. But here's something that she finally has that she can hold on to and love, innocence love. Something that ain't going to call her ugly. Something that ain't going to beat up on her. Finally, and that they take and Pa takes that away from her too. Did anybody have kids…

MARTIN: No, the idea of not seeing your children…

Ms. BARRINO: Ah.

MARTIN: …just make you feel like you could stop breathing. You just would like it to end now, really.

Ms. BARRINO: Yes.

MARTIN: But let's turn to the happier things and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …so we thank you for that and - well, I don't know what else is left. "American Idol" winner, memoir, movie made of the memoir, Broadway star…

Ms. BARRINO: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …touring - national touring star.

Ms. BARRINO: Yes.

MARTIN: I don't know, what else is left? You going to NASA? You going to go on a space shuttle mission?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What are your thoughts?

Ms. BARRINO: Well, if they ask me I'm going to pray about it and I'll go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARRINO: But no. Right now I'm doing - I'm also doing a documentary on my life for VH1, so they're following me around right now. And after the lights go off and mic go out they show what Fantasia does after that and that's being a mom, a sister, a daughter, a friend, taking care of my whole family, and also getting my diploma.

MARTIN: Really? All right. Okay.

Ms. BARRINO: I've been talking about it for so long. And it's like, come on now, Tasia. You've been talking about it. You might as well practice what you preach. And my daughter now, who's dealing with the whole school situation, and I have a 16-year-old brother who I just sent to military school because it was needed. I'm going to get my diploma to show them, okay, God has blessed. Yes, he has, but education is still very important. So I'm getting my diploma.

MARTIN: Well check in with us when…

Ms. BARRINO: I will.

MARTIN: …and tell us how that's going. We'd love to hear from you.

Ms. BARRINO: Yeah. I will walk and everything. It won't be my class but I will walk with a class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's right. Well, you know we are good at school. We're good studiers so if you need any study partners you just let us know.

Ms. BARRINO: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Finally, we just wondered, do you still watch "American Idol?"

Ms. BARRINO: I do.

MARTIN: Any…

Ms. BARRINO: I get addicted.

MARTIN: You get addicted too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. BARRINO: I get addicted. "American Idol" is a - it's a blessing and I always look at it so that I can - won't forget where I come from because you can get out here and get a little big-headed and get to the point where you feel like, all right, I done made it. And I - but I just go back to the things that allow me to remember who I am and where I come from.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Fantasia. We told you she doesn't need another name but we'll tell you want it is anyway, Fantasia Barrino. She is currently starring as Celie in "The Color Purple" production now playing in Washington, D.C. And, of course, she's the third-season winner of "American Idol." And she was kind enough to take time out of a very busy schedule and a demanding schedule to visit with us at the Kennedy Center. Fantasia, thank you so much.

Ms. BARRINO: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "The Color Purple")

Ms. BARRINO: (Singing) Like a blade of corn. Like a honeybee...

MARTIN: If you happen to be in the Washington D.C. area you can see Fantasia in "The Color Purple." It runs through August 9th at the Kennedy Center. Plus we have pictures from our interview and a blog posting from one of our staff members about the production. You can check that out at the TELL ME MORE page at NPR.org.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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