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‘Color Purple’ star has her own story

Stephanie St JamesStephanie St. James hears the phone and wakes up from a serious cat nap. “Hello? Oh, hello. Yes, I have coffee, right here.”

The night before, St. James was in Portland, Ore., performing in the musical version of The Color Purple.

Today she’s in Denver rehearsing for the musical, which opened Jan. 7 at Denver’s Buell Theatre.

Fatigue clings to her speech.

After a few sips of coffee, clarity returns.

St. James has performed the role of Squeak, whom she describes “a young ambitious girl with big dreams,” since the touring production of The Color Purple opened in 2007 in Chicago.

“When we first opened in Chicago, it was a ‘sit-down’ production, meaning we stayed put for a while,” she says. “Then we went to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and really began traveling.”

Steven Spielberg’s 1985 cinematic translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, while nominated for 11 Oscars, was considered too controversial to score any wins.

The musical incarnation of  The Color Purple takes its cues directly from Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which traces 40 years in the life of an abused African American woman in the South.

Judging by her photos alone, St. James is a breathtakingly beautiful black actress.

Her heritage, however, is more like Joseph’s many-colored coat.

St. James is Jewish.

She’s also of mixed-raced parentage.

Her mother Aya, a Russian Jew, made aliyah at the age of 12. Aya’s mother was a Holocaust survivor, and her father was a partisan.

One day while Aya was standing in the cafeteria line at The Hebrew University, she met Jim, a scholarship student from Guyana. Aya and Jim fell in love and got married.

After the birth of their first son, Jim and Aya moved to the US, where Jim had accepted a job as an oceanographer.

Stephanie was born in Miami.

“There were more opportunities in the States,” she says of her parents’ decision to leave Israel. “Everyone was chasing the American dream.

“It was the late 1960s. The civil rights era was just coming to an end. But in the eyes of the average American, a mixed-race couple with mixed-race children were not accepted.”

The close family faced incredible challenges with determination and pride.

“I identify as a Jew,” St. James says. “It’s a very important part of who I am.

“My grandmother was one of only two Jews who escaped mass murder in her Polish village. The Nazis killed everyone in her family. This is my history. People have asked about my background all my life,” St. James says. “I never looked typically African American. So I tell them my story.

“And I’m very proud to say I’m Jewish.”

Embracing her own religious and cultural diversity took time, St. James admits, especially as a child.?

“When I was a kid and we were living in northern California, there were just two other mixed-race children in my neighborhood. They were both girls, and we’ve since become like sisters.

“Still, it was a very uncommon situation to be in. When I look back on it now,” she concedes, “I did have a bit of an identity crisis as a child.”

She also demonstrated considerable talent at a tender age.

Following her mother’s suggestion, Stephanie auditioned for the lead role in Annie at the local community playhouse.  

The director found his Annie –– and Stephanie discovered a new home in the theater.

“I literally grew up in the theater,” St. James says. “It’s wonderful. It’s a place where you get the opportunity to inhabit another person, but it’s also a community of misfits –– all these crazy characters!

“The theater feels like home to me. I am accepted, and loved, for who I am. There is no fear, no identity crisis. It’s a very warm, comforting environment.”

St. James refuses to disclose her age “because this industry is unforgiving to women. Let’s just say I’m a late 1970s, early 1980s baby.”

A consummate actress and singer, St. James has appeared on Broadway and in the national touring companies of Fame: The Musical, Footloose, Happy Days, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and other shows. She’s also recorded CDs.

After years on the road with The Color Purple, she’s thinking of returning to New York to embark on a new career path. “I plan to enroll in an acting studio and study the craft seriously, with a focus on TV and films,” she says. “I’d like to see where this takes me.”

She earned a best supporting actress nod from the Toronto Independent Film Festival for the role of Maravillas in the film Traces.

St. James says that while her father is on his own spiritual path these days, her mother remains very active in her synagogue.

“My grandmother died last year. It’s so important for my mother and me to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Survivors are dying. That era is almost over, and I don’t want anyone to forget that it happened.”

Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency shines a happier spotlight on mixed- raced individuals in America, she says.

“Wherever I go, I see mixed-race children and couples. And I really think that symbolizes what America is all about. It’s hard to believe that marrying someone of a different race was once illegal.”

The character of Squeak in The Color Purple has an exceptionally high speaking voice.

Asked to slip into Squeak mode, St. James laughingly demurs.

“I just woke up not too long ago, so it’s probably not going to happen.”

The Color Purple runs through Jan. 18.

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IJN Senior Writer | [email protected]

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