The Color Purple: The Musical about Love may be nearing its three-year run on tour, but for Stu James, performing at the Fox never gets old. James, who plays the character Harpo, was born, raised and educated in Atlanta, and lived here until he set his sights on New York, nearly 12 years ago. And although he’s moved around since and currently lives in Los Angeles, his career proves that home is definitely where the heart is.
“Being back in Atlanta is a wonderful, wonderful feeling,” James says. “I’m not able to get home as often because I’m on the road, but being able to come once again, it’s grounding — it keeps it real for me. And, it’s wonderful and still exciting for my family [including his “Big Mama” who turns 100 this year], they’re always excited. They’d come every night if they could.”
Several years ago, James was “selling stocks, bonds and mutual funds during the day, and doing a part-time gig at the Alliance Theatre called Cotton Patch Gospel [at night],” he says. “I remember taking my two weeks [of] vacation to rehearse.”
The moonlighting phase didn’t last long, however. Another company soon bought out the bank where he worked and laid him off. Severance paycheck in hand, he hit the ground running. In retrospect, he calls it fate. “It was quite an amazing transition. I went from working at the bank to working full-time with Theatre for Young Audiences at the Alliance Theatre.”
From there, the ball continued to roll. With the support and encouragement of mentors and friends who were working actors, he plunged forward, confident in his gift. “It got to the point were I believed what I could do, but I had to get to that place,” James says. “It took throughout college and a few years after that, just to start fine-tuning and trusting my talent in the art.”
After leaving Atlanta for New York, James took a detour to Orlando where he did shows with Disney — Festival of the Lion King and Tarzan Rocks — for a year and a half. When he finally made it to the big city, he went on the road with the Broadway show Rent for six months. “I actually opened on Broadway on my birthday, March 20, . I was like, ‘Wow, if that wasn’t a confirmation, I don’t know what it was.’”
Now, some years — and an NAACP Theatre Award nomination — later, James is fortunate to do what he loves all day. And while the Alliance Theatre gave him his first full-time professional acting job, it was his father — an all-around musician — that passed along his talent in the arts. The elder James is a pianist, trumpeter, trombonist, composer and lyricist who was offered a scholarship to Julliard, but opted to attend school closer to home after getting married.
“I love to hear pops play,” James said. “It’s kind of become a casual hobby, but I know it was his passion. I wish he had followed through with it. But with circumstances sometimes (when you’ve got a family), you don’t always think you can make a full-time living doing it. I didn’t realize that until I left the South and started working consistently.”
Fortunately, for both, old habits die hard. Not only has the younger James’ enthusiasm for performing inspired his father to start creating music again, its also helped him stay true to his own musical interests. Blessed with a genuinely warm singing voice, James got his start in the Atlanta Boys Choir while in middle school and eventually, paid his way through college with a vocal stipend from the Morehouse College Glee Club (MCGC).
Ironically, it was his passion for music that led him to his destiny as an actor. While a student, he appeared on “The Cosby Show” with the MCGC as the ensemble choir that backed Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) when she sang at her college reunion. But if you ask him to choose one talent over the other, you’ll be hard-pressed for a decisive winner.
“For me, they work together,” James explains. “I don’t think one is better than the other. Sometimes the fire may burn a little more in one area than another, so you put your energy and attention into it at the moment. Then the fire picks up again in another area and you start focusing on that as well. I think singing, acting, performing, dancing … they all work together, and if you’re talented in all those areas you use it.”
Indeed, he does. When he’s not touring with productions, he’s working on his debut album Love Is, a project he hopes to complete by next summer. He even danced alongside Beyoncé in the motion picture Dreamgirls. With his rigorous Color Purple schedule, it’s hard to believe he finds time to do anything other than eat, sleep and perform. (Within the last few months, they’ve performed in various cities across the country, including nightly for six weeks in Washington, D.C.) But the hard work and effort is all a part of the process. And James doesn’t mind it one bit.
“I am exactly where I’m supposed to be at this moment,” he says. “I am thankful, and I love what I do. I have no complaints.”
Catch Atlanta’s native son, along with the entire “amazing cast,” of The Color Purple: The Musical about Love at The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Sept. 15-27.