Indiana State University Newsroom

Student actors discover personal connections in ‘The Color Purple’

November 6, 2014

Shalynn McNeal had been at Indiana State University only about a week when she was walking around campus and heard music playing. Intrigued by the sounds, she investigated.

"It was really bright, and I saw all the people through the reflection in the glass. There was music playing, and I was like, ‘I think I'm going to go in there.' And I did," said the social work major from Michigan City. "I didn't know what it was. I just walked in here. And when I came in, they're like, ‘The Color Purple' auditions,' and I'm like ‘Really?' It must have been meant to be."

McNeal had heard about auditions for the upcoming production -- set for Nov. 13-Nov. 16 in Dreiser Theater -- while attending freshman orientation and later saw flyers around campus.

"I wasn't going to try out for it. My friends kept encouraging me, because I've done musicals before," she said. "I went in, didn't have a song (prepared), just thought of the first thing that came to my head and auditioned."

McNeal said she thought the play would be a good distraction for her freshman year, something to keep homesickness at bay. What she got, however, was much more -- a support group who helped her through some typical first-year troubles.

"Everybody really took me under their wing, ‘Shay, you okay?' ‘What's going on?' ‘You need a place to stay?' ‘What do we have to?' They really helped me through that," said McNeal, who plays Nettie.

The student-led and produced production is also the university's first all African-American company. The talented cast draws students and faculty from all backgrounds and majors -- not just theater.

"Some people in the play are theater majors, but you would never know that, because they're on the same level as you, as far as being helpful," said Jonathan Posley, a criminal justice major from Indianapolis.

For theater major Ylana Aukamp, who plays the character Shug Avery, it's an opportunity to share what she's learned.

"It's kind of weird to take the front seat instead of the back seat, and you have to now be the teacher and explain to them what certain things mean, how the audience will interpret what you're doing and how you move -- it's really, really different from being a student," said Aukamp, a senior from Indianapolis. "But it was very fulfilling as well, because you get to see how much you've learned. So it's been very refreshing and a little rewarding to my craft."

Posley, who sings baritone and bass with the Ebony Majestic Choir, said it's been trying to get into his character, Mister.

"The toughest part about being Mister is being outright rude, violent, all that. It's kind of a struggle, because that's not me as a person," Posley said.

Only with the help of the cast and crew was he able to tackle the material.

"I've gotten really close with one of the directors. His name is Charles," Posley said. "Initially, we met with him helping me get into the character of Mister, helping me realize his presence, his stature, his tone of voice, everything. From then on, helping me become most comfortable, we grew close."

Michael Arrington, associate professor of communication, also has trouble relating to his characters of Old Mister, Pa and the African Chief.

"I'm reminded of one of my favorite writers, the late Ralph Wiley, who once wrote an essay about ‘The Color Purple,' and he said the best thing about the male characters in the film was that some of them had the decency to die in the end," Arrington said. "I get to go on stage and try to embody some of the worst people I've ever encountered in literature. This is not Mr. Rogers by any means, and in fact, in talking to my daughters about this performance I had to let them know, ‘This is Daddy pretending to be someone.'"

Such mature material brings tough scenes for other members of the cast -- whether it's a fight scene, a love scene or a moment that just hits home.

"A pretty difficult scene for me is where Nettie gets taken away. At one point, I was taken away from my mom, so it kind of brings me back to that particular moment," said Samantha Smith, a freshman psychology major from Gary. "Thank God I didn't have to be raised in a foster home, but when Nettie's taken away from Celie, I can definitely relate. I was Celie at one point in time, so that definitely does bring back painful memories."

Smith's mother is now among her biggest supporters and has made her participation in the play possible, as she watches Smith's 2-year-old son during rehearsals. Said Smith of her mother's support come opening night, "She might shout me out too much, like -- ‘Mom, it's not a track meet, it's a play!'"

For Briana Payne, a sophomore communication major from Indianapolis, the production has also deepened her connection with her mother.

"(‘The Color Purple') is my mother's favorite movie. My mother went through something similar in her life, like Celie, so for the longest time, I couldn't understand," said Payne, who plays one of the church ladies. "I remember the first night we had our read-through, at the end, I started to cry ... because I see a relevant link between Celie finding her strength and the type of person my mother is and what she's come from. I sometimes call my mother, and I'm like, ‘Mom, I get it now.'"

Participating in the production makes Smith want to contribute more and to learn more about history, she said.

"It made me realize that I need to be more of a credit to my race than just being a good citizen," said Smith, who plays Celie. "It exposed me to the hardships that women did have to go through back in those times, and they were hard, especially being an African-American woman. And it actually made me want to learn my history, my family's history and look up a lot of that background."

And she wants even more for her young son's future.

"A lot of the people think ‘Oh, he's an African-American boy, you should put him in sports' and things of that nature. But I want him to realize that women can play an important part on this earth, and as a mom, I want him to realize our family history," Smith said. "So I believe as he gets older, I'm going to start incorporating some of those lessons in my teachings for him ... and not just to listen to the stereotypical ‘Hey, go into sports!' Maybe you want to learn an instrument? Go and explore, just like I did with theater."

Tickets for "The Color Purple" may be purchased noon-4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10-Friday, Nov. 14 in the New Theater lobby, 536 S. 7th St. Tickets are $20, or admission is free with a valid student ID.

The production is sponsored by Indiana State's theater and history departments, the Office of Diversity, the Sideshow Musical Theatre Workshop, Student Government Association and Theta Alpha Phi.


Photos: -- Ylana Aukamp as Shug Avery and Jonathon Posley as Mister pose for a promotional image of "The Color Purple," set to be performed at Indiana State's Dreiser Theater Nov. 13-16. -- Jonathon Posley as Mister and Ylana Aukamp as Shug Avery pose for a promotional image of "The Color Purple," set to be performed at Indiana State's Dreiser Theater Nov. 13-16. -- From left, JiLeigha Posley, Rachel Bibbs and Briana Payne rehearse their parts as the three church ladies in Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple." -- From left, Rachel Bibbs, Briana Payne and JiLeigha Posley rehearse their parts as the three church ladies in Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple." -- The cast of Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple" rehearses. -- Shalynn McNeal, left, as Nettie and Samantha Smith as Celie rehearse in Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple." -- Shalynn McNeal, left, as Nettie and Samantha Smith as Celie rehearse in Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple." -- Michael Arrington, right, as Old Mister, rehearses with Jonathon Posley as Mister in Indiana State's production of "The Color Purple." -- Cast members of "The Color Purple" rehearse in Dreiser Theater at Indiana State University.

Contact: David Valdez, instructor, Department of Theater at Indiana State University, or 813-624-3034.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or