Second Acts: Heather Headley Is Back On Broadway — After A '15-Year Intermission' The actress, who won a Tony in 1997 for her role in Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, returns to Broadway after 15 years, to play nightclub singer Shug Avery in a revival of The Color Purple.
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Second Acts: Heather Headley Is Back On Broadway — After A '15-Year Intermission'

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Second Acts: Heather Headley Is Back On Broadway — After A '15-Year Intermission'

Second Acts: Heather Headley Is Back On Broadway — After A '15-Year Intermission'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And speaking of treats, let's hear now from singer and actress Heather Headley. She made a splash on Broadway in the late '90s, first as Nala in the original "Lion King," then as Aida in the Elton John, Tim Rice musical for which she won a Tony at the age of 26. Then she disappeared sort of taking a break from performing eight shows a week to focus on music and also her family.

But now she's back on Broadway wowing critics and fans alike with her role as Shug Avery in the revival of "The Color Purple" this summer. She was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York City, and I started by asking her how it feels to be back.

HEATHER HEADLEY: I'm incredibly overwhelmed. It has been an extraordinary time. I think the Heather of, you know, 15 years ago when you saw Aida - she talks to me every now and then and says, you know, remember this? Remember these streets? Remember walking here? Remember how you felt?

And so I come back with a sense of gratitude and just - I'm very humbled by it.

MARTIN: Well, people are still being affected by your work in many contexts. I want to play a clip that just shows just how big of a star that you were the first time around. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Really?

HEADLEY: (As The Pocket Queen) Yeah.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Food pockets?

HEADLEY: (As The Pocket Queen) Food pockets. People all around the world eat food pockets.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Get out of town.

MARTIN: That is, of course, you as The Pocket Queen on "Sesame Street."

HEADLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: That's the - because, you know, you only get invited to do "Sesame Street..."

HEADLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...If you're huge.

HEADLEY: Listen to me...

MARTIN: If you're a mega star.

HEADLEY: Yes, and that was the creme of my creme when they called me to do that "Sesame Street" thing. I think it was the only thing that I was waiting for in my life because I grew up on "Sesame Street."

MARTIN: Well, I will tell you, I think that that's - you are the only reason that my son eats spring rolls...

HEADLEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...That you told him to on "Elmo's Magic Cookbook."

HEADLEY: I love it (laughter).

MARTIN: But I just have to ask about - you know, The New York Times raves about your performance on Broadway, but it described it in a piece about you as a 15-year intermission. And I wondered when you made that decision, was it a gradual thing? Was it a eureka moment that this is - that you had to really change your life in order to have the other life that you wanted?

HEADLEY: I don't know if it was an intermission. I think it was an intermission from eight shows a week as such, but not necessarily from everything else. And I feel as though, as a person, as a woman, I want to be rounded in that way. I don't want to wake up in 15 or 20 years and look around and think that my children said, you were never here or even, Michel, to not have had the experience of meeting my kids.

MARTIN: Just for those who aren't aware, in "The Color Purple," you play Shug Avery, as we said.

HEADLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: She's a flashy - she's a blues singer.

HEADLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: She becomes part of the life of Celie, who's the center of the story. "The Color Purple," of course, for those who may not recall is originally a novel by Alice Walker.

One of your co-stars told The Times that you have brought a fierceness and maturity to the role. I wanted to ask how you - how did you take on that role and make it your own. What did you think of when you thought of her?

HEADLEY: Oh, goodness. I - you know, there's so much. I remember just seeing it and feeling this intense sadness for her. She has not been loved the way she wants to love. My Shug wants to be loved. She wants to be married. She wants to be in a relationship, even Shug's father, who happens to be the minister in the community thinks that she's dirty, thinks that she's unclean and she's got a dirty woman's disease.

And every night, I allow myself to hear that because I think that to me is the definition of her brokenness, that even her father has turned on her for whatever reasons, that the community has turned on her. And the sad part about that is that we know people like that, and I pray to God that I have not been one of those people that have talked, you know - I can't believe I'm crying - but has talked about somebody in that way because there's a brokenness in there.

And so I think Shug, for me, kind of came from that place, you know, that brokenness and then how does she - even though she still believes in God and clings to God now, how she plants these pieces of love and beauty now into Celie, another broken person. And then they can both fly, you know, and kind of rise from the ashes.

And I want there to be women who identify with Shug who, you know, have kind of reached out to men, reached out to maybe the wrong places to find their love, you know, because they have been to some extent neglected by even that first man that they should - that should love them - their dads or, you know, whoever that is. And there is a way to find love. You have to find love in God, find love in community, find love in your sisters, you know, find love in your friends. And thank you, Michel, for making me ball this morning.

MARTIN: Well, we're not done because after...

HEADLEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...After the incidents that occurred earlier this month - the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota by police officers, as well as the attack on the police officers in Dallas, speaking of making us all cry...

HEADLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: You posted a Facebook video where you responded to these events with a song, and I am going to play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

HEADLEY: (Singing) Every hour I need him, my one defense, my righteousness. Oh, God, how I need...

You know, it was a tough two weeks, and it was tough in the cast. Another part of this, Michel, is that, you know, our show is very women-centered - right? - and part of that is that we have to beat these men up. We kind of - people have criticized sometimes Alice Walker, you know - what I mean? - her book because the men get - they get the bad brunt there.

And that week, it was tough to beat them up. It really was. And I - we were just kind of carrying a lot of heaviness in the theater. And then it just kept going. Every time I thought my heart would - was broken enough, it just kept going. And the only thing I know how to do is sing. That's how I speak. I mean, if I could talk to you through song right now it'd be easier. And that song was just continually in my head. In my head because I just needed somebody bigger than I am, you know?

MARTIN: What's next for you, Ms. Second Act?

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEY: Well, I got a few more acts to go. This is kind of one of those 10-act plays, I hope. I told somebody the other day, Michel, it's kind of like, you know, you have your mom's fried chicken and - or, in my case, I'm from Trinidad, so your mother's - your mother curry, the curry from Trinidad.

So you get it from other people. You're just like, oh, that's great. Oh, yes, I have my curry, and I have it from other places. And it's really fine. And then you go home, and you have your mother's curry. I mean, you're like, oh, but there's no place like this. And so that's how I feel when I walk back on that stage. So I'm excited about the next few years. I really am.

MARTIN: That was the Tony-winning actress Heather Headley. She's currently playing the role of Shug Avery in "The Color Purple" on Broadway. And that role ends at the end of the summer, a couple of weeks after that. She was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York City. Heather Headley, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your beautiful work. Keep in touch.

HEADLEY: I will. Thanks for having me, Michel. I appreciate it.

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