I spent six hours in my car on a recent Friday afternoon, driving through rural North and South Carolina, from one college campus to another. Thanks to a number of accidents and road closures, I made it to Clemson University’s production of Godspell just as they were about to give away the ticket that I’d reserved online six weeks before I’d had two granola bars and half a sleeve of Ritz crackers for dinner, but I forgot my hunger the minute Sarah walked out on stage as Judas. Watching her sing, dance, and betray Jesus was the first I’d seen of her in two months.
It was sitting in my stopped Camry on some southern highway, Ritz crumbs littering my lap, that I recalled how we’re always almost late to these things, and we don’t ever remember to pack nutritious meals. Fall of my senior year, Maddie, Ross, and I bolted into Coastal Carolina’s production of Spring Awakening after driving straight from school through three hours of countryside where the only vegetarian option was french fries. That spring, the four of us performed together in our school’s talent show, which happened the same night that the musical Once was on Downtown. After we sang a tearful acoustic rock song with a four-part harmony on our high school auditorium stage, we ran out to the parking lot and jumped into Ross’s Jeep. We made it, out of breath, just as the familiar opening notes of Once were playing. We hadn’t planned for dinner.
Christmas of my senior year, Ross’s grandma died a week before our school’s production of Little Women. Sarah and I sprinted from the parking lot into the auditorium for our first run- through having driven to the upstate and back for the funeral. Our dinner was bagels at the hurried 4:30 p.m. Starbucks stop. Ross had never hugged me as hard as he did when we met in the sunny country church, a few hours from our homes, a few hours before rehearsal.
There was not a car ride with Maddie, Ross, and Sarah that did not include copious amounts of singing, but I remember that winter one in particular for leaving my voice ragged and sore by the time I got to rehearsal that evening. Sarah and I had a duet in Little Women, so we started off with the Karaoke version of “Could You?” blaring through the Camry’s sensible speakers. Before long, though, my Broadway playlist was on shuffle, and Sarah and I were putting on Tony-winning performances for the audience of taillights ahead of us.
I had meticulously curated that Broadway playlist since a Christmas many years before that one, when I got my first iPod shuffle. Though I was much too old for playing in the backyard, I held on through my middle and early high school years to a peculiar habit of swinging on my backyard swing set after dinner until my parents called me inside to unload the dishwasher. It was listening to my iPod and staring at the bushes of my backyard in the evening, swinging, that I would stage entire productions.
Lights, orchestra, costumes, audiences full of strangers and loved ones. I would choose my role—it was always the beautiful, heroic female lead that you root for the most. My favorite characters had the biggest roles and the biggest songs, which I of course delivered flawlessly after skipping over the boring plot-driven numbers. I was great as Eponine, Elle, and Elphaba. As I grew older and entered high school I assumed more complicated roles like Joanne from Rent, Kate from Avenue Q, Kathy from The Last Five Years, and even poor Wendla from Spring Awakening, hoping my parents wouldn’t find out that I was staging flawless performances of songs about sex.
But by the time I reached the end of high school, I had transitioned to car singing, and that car singing would often happen on the way to and from rehearsals with Maddie, Sarah, or Ross in my passenger seat. My best friends were my impromptu duet partners in addition to my confidants, my support system, and my fellow theater patrons. From the driver’s seat of my little car, I heard their voices alongside mine.
Maddie has a powerful and consummately on-pitch voice that was perfected by a professional vocal coach. Sarah, too, has vocal qualities that some compared to angels. Ross is a boy and therefore it didn’t much matter in high school if he was technically-gifted or a hard worker, but he is both. Each of them held leading roles in our school’s musicals at least once,and when they weren’t leads, they were supporting characters with nice costumes and plot arcs and catchy exposition numbers.
Meanwhile, I was a perpetual ensemble member. While they’d never point it out, my voice did not match the voices of the people who were both my car duet partners and real duet partners. It’s the voice of a choir singer, someone with descent pitch and rhythm, who can hold an alto harmony and read music, but whose voice really doesn’t sound good. I could drive people to rehearsal, and I could write an A+ paper, but my voice was not anything like the voices of the people I loved, nor the voices we admired together.
It was in the era of grandmother’s funerals, Little Women, and college acceptances—just before the three of them went off to study music and theater and I went off to study poems and power structures—that the rest of my world got more complicated. I was reading more and more, and typical of my overachieving persona, I willingly sat in for a few weeks on a lower level English class in which they were reading Beloved. Toni Morrison made me question everything about my generally affluent white southern existence, and hoping to keep me on that train of thought, my anti-establishment English teacher at my mostly affluent white southern private school encouraged me to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
I had never read a book that so explicitly depicted personal and institutional trauma. I’d never read a book with all black characters. I’d never read a book where the main character was gay. I’d never read a book that so subtly but powerfully indicted the power structure that I had grown up benefitting from. When I finished it, I googled The Color Purple only to find that despite both its heartbreaking subject matter and its epistolary style, it had not only been adapted to a movie, but also a musical. I scoured Youtube for illegally-recorded Broadway performances, a pastime not uncommon to my adolescence. It was then that I found Cynthia Erivo’s performance of the show’s pivotal solo, “I’m Here,” at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors.
She takes center stage with a mic. The lights are purple, of course. She looks like a goddess in a fitted black gown, sparkling eye makeup and lip gloss. She stares straight ahead and delivers that crucial first line: I don’t need you to love me.
Celie. That’s Celie’s line. But Erivo doesn’t look like Celie. Celie is a queer black woman, a survivor of sexual assault, a small business-owner, a sister and a mother and a friend. Celie is also markedly un-pretty. Celie is called ugly. Cynthia Erivo is not ugly. Cynthia Erivo is beautiful. But at that moment, Cynthia Erivo is Celie.
“I’m Here,” is not a song for a harmonizing background character. The first two minutes or so carries a lilting tempo, and grows in volume and force as it goes. I get lulled into bobbing my head as she lists off what it is that she has: her sister, her house, her chair. Got my hands /doin’ good like they s’posed to / showin’ my heart to the folks that I’m close to./Got my eyes /though they don’t see as far now. / They see more ‘bout how things really are now.
My mind flashes back to the porch that I’d constructed in my mind for Celie to sit on. The way her hands move when she touches Shug Avery’s face, works with a needle and thread, dances at Harpo’s. The way she squints when she sees Nettie driving up the road in a car with the children she thought were dead.
My mind flashes to my own hands. Big. Pale. Gangly, when I would flail them around on stage when I was trying to sing and dance. On the steering wheel of my car, driving with my friends to rehearsals and shows. Holding a pen, scribbling in the margins of my books. My eyes itching for more to read, for more to learn. The way they see the world now that they’ve seen Celie in it. Just as you grow accustomed to this gradual growth, the song takes a pause, the surrounding orchestra plays a couple of high notes, and then Celie tells us what she’s gonna do. I’m gonna take a deep breath. / Gonna hold my head up. / Gonna put my shoulders back / and look you straight in the eye.The tempo quickens, the string instruments move back and forth as if breathing quicker.
I breathe quicker. I think of the God that Celie found in her heart, the one that made her love a body that was a locus of so much pain. The God that lifted her head up, pulled her shoulders back, put the words in her mouth to tell Mr. ____ of her worth.
I think of my shoulders, hunched from leaning over desks and taking tests. My body, which was loved and told of its worthiness from its beginning. My body, one that keeps me safe from institutional and interpersonal violence because of its color. My body, which is just now growing accustomed to holding right where my breath catches and falls the weight of all that’s wrong in the world—a weight that most people carry with them from their beginnings.
Here’s when the big notes come out—the ones Maddie taught me come from your chest voice, your “belting” range. Except Erivo can sing from her chest high notes that most ordinary singers have trouble singing from the top of their bodies—their “head” voices. She exhibits intense vocal control, with enough breath not only to belt a high melody on I’m gonna sing out/sing out, but also to add a run at the end of the line.
I think of Celie’s voice. I think of my friends’. I think of mine.
And the song keeps up that momentum, Erivo and her accompaniment effortlessly switch to a still faster tempo. This third part—or, more accurately, movement— is where Erivo truly gets into the power of the song, her arms pumping as the lyrics proclaim her worth. With all the love alive in me / I’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree.
I think of Celie, making herself a tree when Mr. _____ would beat her. I think of her growing to find God in the trees. I think of her growing to find God in herself.
I think of the love inside of me. I think of where it came from. Where it can go. What it can do. What it must do.
And then—just as quickly as it came—the tempo backs off, the accompaniment gets quiet, her voice softer. But most of all, I’m thankful for loving who I really am.
This is how it would end, right? Quietly, with grace and subtle power, like the novel. A growth that lingers gently.
I’m beautiful, she almost whispers, in her head voice, with an almost-smile. Yes, I’m beautiful.
Delicate, quiet. A big breath.
And I’m here.
Louder than ever before, as if that was possible. Controlled in the most precise way, but appearing to be a release, a lack of control, a pronouncement, a proclamation. Like three separate declarations. And. I’m. Here. The notes stepping up with each word, because they had to. Her mouth wide open, her head leaned toward the audience in the cheapest seats. How music is supposed to sound. How Celie is supposed to sound.
“I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.” Celie said, in the book, like a prayer.
I found far more videos of Erivo as Celie—even as Erivo singing “I’m Here,” in costume, on The Color Purple stage. No performance ever struck me like this one did, the first time I saw it, having only just set the marked-up, dog-eared book aside. For the first time I saw Celie with my eyes—scarred, complicated, strong, unpretty Celie— was in a fashionably-dressed, flatteringly-lighted, technically-perfect performance of a song that took the words of Alice Walker and put them in the medium of my adolescence, the medium where I grew to love the people that I love and where I grew to understand the work that I’m meant to do in the world. The story that Alice Walker wrote and Cynthia Erivo sang is not an easy story. It’s one that indicts much about the place where I came from, how my state and my country were built on the abuse of black people, especially black women, and how that abuse—as well as its tangible benefits to white Americans—linger to this day. Keeping this story and the larger story of American history in my body where it belongs will require a daily acknowledgement of the privileges I’ve been given and the ways that those systems of privilege have hurt real people like Celie. It’s a story I want to be in the audience for. It’s a story that I must be in the audience for.
I’ll probably get to my seat once the overture has begun with my belly rumbling. Maybe I’ll watch my friends perform, and maybe they’ll tell stories that are also heartbreaking and hopeful, rich with history and rife with complexity. I bet they’ll be dressed and lighted beautifully, and their notes will sail up over my head and bring tears to my eyes. And I’ll always sing along to Broadway solos in the car on the way there.
But I know now that don’t belong center-stage with a mic. I know now what the voices that need to be heard sound like, and they don’t need my alto-harmony to tell their story. What they need is an audience, someone to listen to the notes that start in the center of their bodies and sail out of their mouths and into my ears. And I will hold their stories gently in my hands, which is what my hands are supposed to do, and carry them with me long after I leave the theater. That is all I can do, and that is enough. It is enough to be here.
Liddy Grantland is a Duke University undergraduate from Columbia, South Carolina studying English and African American Studies. When she's not reading for fun instead of reading for class, you can find her singing in choir, working with archives, leading interfaith dialogue discussions, and driving everyone she knows crazy with her show tunes and social issues. You can find her work in Unsweetened Magazine, Sonorus Zine, and her personal blog, liddyature.wordpress.com.