Character Creation: The Color Purple Star Isaiah Johnson Talks Finding His Mister
March 3rd, 2016
by Josh Ferri
Isaiah Johnson (who had a memorable Broadway debut a few seasons back as the flamboyant Prince of Morocco in Pacino’s The Merchant of Venice) is back on Broadway in another revival that has all of New York talking, John Doyle’s The Color Purple. Johnson stars as Celie’s abusive husband and Shug Avery’s longtime lover, Mister.
BroadwayBox caught up with Johnson to find out what three big inspirations helped him in creating an outward stage villain with a rich internal struggle and history.
In the rehearsal process, our director, John Doyle, made it clear and reiterated that we are all a community of storytellers telling Celie’s story. I had to figure out how my puzzle piece helped her story. So the first thing I set out to do was make the audience love Celie more from the beginning. I knew Cynthia, being the amazing talent she is, was so stoic with this quiet innocence and vulnerability that draws the audience in—like how if you’re teaching a class, you speak with a quiet voice and people will lean in. My job was to make her environment more obtuse, loud, and boisterous and then that would draw the audience even more into her than they were already. I set out to be her completely total opposite, her ultimate catalyst that throws this innocent girl into a world of misogyny and self-hate. I knew if I could make that big, she will look small and innocent in that world.
I had three novels I used for source material: The Color Purple (obviously) Alice Walker’s first novel called The Third Life of Grange Copeland (which was suggested to me by our amazing assistant director, Sarita Moore), and a biography of Charles Manson told through the first person.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland is a really beautiful book that helped because it was unofficially Mister’s background, and the background of the men in The Color Purple. It’s a pretty graphic novel that goes into detail about being a part of a generational system of oppression—men who are abusive to their wives and how their sons grow up abusive—and she explores what that’s like in this one family. It was very, very eye-opening. There was a scene in the novel where he tells his wife, ‘You’re not good enough to call me by my name. I want you to call me Mister.’ It really expanded the novel of The Color Purple in my imagination.
As for Charles Manson, I really wanted to know a bit more about the mentality of someone who felt they didn’t get a fair shake in life and whose innocent was destroyed without their permission. I wanted to know (in our lifetime and in a nonfictional way) what point of view did that person have?
The last thing that inspired this character was my own personal, overwhelming observance of the state of black men in American culture—historically and presently. I wanted to communicate a character that a lot of women in the audience could identify with some on some level and bring honor and truth to the emotional journey that led the characters to do what they do.
What I love about the climax at the Easter dinner scene is Mister says, ‘you can’t curse nobody because you’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly and you’re a woman.’ And he’s not name calling in that moment, he’s teaching her that life doesn’t get better than this for any of us. This is our life; you can curse me all you want but it’s not going to do any good. You’re black and you’re poor—we have no power. And he’s showing his point of view about himself too in that moment, but in Celie’s case, she’s a woman and that’s the bottom of the totem pole. I wanted to create a character people could recognize and understand and hope better for. The point of the whole piece is we hope for a better world.
See Isaiah Johnson's dynamic Mister live in 'The Color Purple' at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre.