Interview: Carly Mercedes Dyer (The Color Purple)
As Shug Avery makes her appearance on stage in the musical, The Color Purple, her presence is marked with a slinky, sultry ballad beckoning her name.
When asked what song would mark hers in a musical in her honour, Carly Mercedes Dyer answers without question.
It is ‘September’ by Earth, Wind & Fire.
The familiar 70s groove, the gooey harmonies, the upbeat, and that ‘ba-dee-ya!’; it is an infectious combination. That song is a treat. A delight whenever it is played; no matter the time or place. It is a medicine of sorts.
As we talk, Carly is on a walk. In the background, I can hear birds tweeting, the sounds of her even steps, and light chatter. Carly herself radiates joy from the minute she answers the phone; she is energised, excited and exuberant.
“The Color Purple! Uh! That show! Just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” She gushes, as I rather excitedly congratulate her on her role as the impossibly irresistible Shug Avery in Curve’s recent digital performance. (I loved it, BTW)
“I have the biggest spot in my heart for Curve. Being back literally felt like coming home.” She says. Among her last roles before the pandemic hit, Carly shined as Anita in the theatre’s 2019 Christmas show, West Side Story.
“To be back there, especially in these times, was out of this world. I feel so blessed and lucky to be there and especially with a show like The Color Purple. It's a harrowing story but so joyful and something that can raise people's spirits.”
For Carly, The Color Purple is the perfect show about love, acceptance, and togetherness.
The story, based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, follows the life of a poor, black woman named Celie across 30 years. Exploring race, religion, sexuality and power dynamics in early 20th century southern America, Celie meets several women in her life who ultimately help one another find themselves worthy of love. The most prevalent of these relationships is that between Celie and Shug Avery; an infamous singer presented as a dynamite firecracker.
“I'd love to know what is it that keeps her going.” Carly muses, “She seems so carefree, a go with the wind person, but I feel like she always has this hope and longing but I want to ask her what her end goal is.
“I think she sees a future with Celie but at the same time she needs to get her last extravaganzas and her flings with these guys out of the way, but would she ever just settle down or will she always be this free spirit?”
Photo by Pamela Raith
You can tell that Carly has spent a long time asking herself these questions, gleefully imagining opening a bottle of wine with Shug and sharing stories, hopes and dreams. We also unanimously decided that Shug would absolutely know the best places to explore for a night on the town, and exactly where to shop for the best outfit for the occasion.
“Shug is a lot more complex than she is made out to be.” She continues, explaining that rehearsals of The Color Purple took place across only five days. However, her own experience with the story is one that stems back to her college days and has remained rooted in her heart.
Carly recalls how she first watched the film in her student accommodation. It took three sittings to get through as it was so hard-hitting. After that, she listened to the original Broadway recording.
"The emotion it brings…” she starts, breathing as though remembering taking it in for the first time. “From the first number it hits you straight away.”
In the rehearsal room, Carly hadn’t prepared for what it would feel like to hear the songs come to life around her. “I'd gotten a bit self-involved thinking "Do I know my lines? What is my character doing?!" and when the company started with 'Mysterious Ways' and I did not even realise what I'd gotten myself into!
“Anelisa [Lamola] opens her mouth first and I was like “oh, my word!” It was so emotional. It blows me away every time I hear it. I cannot believe the gifts that these guys have and the emotion they bring to it.”
It felt almost as though it was a duty, an honor, to bring Shug Avery’s story to life, and Carly became committed to the duty. “I think Shug has been one of the complex parts I've played in that you aren't given much information, but the actor can give that and add layers for the audience to be intrigued about what she's going through.”
Carly’s portrayal of Shug is in turn, glorious. The moments she shares with Celie (T’Shan Williams) are soft and plump with emotion and underpinned with hope. Doe-eyed and tender, her delivery of ‘Too Beautiful For Words’ is graceful and elegant. Whilst her signature number, ‘Push Da Button’ flows like liquid gold; deep and rich, utterly irresistible.
“For me, this is one of the roles that has changed me the most. Somebody can give off a strong exterior and wild ways and seem sure of themselves but there is somebody who is a lot more broken inside and needs a little bit of help.”
As an actress, Carly explains that she finds empathy to be the greatest key to unlocking her characters. “Instead of being overwhelmed by the person or thinking that you aren't that person, or you haven't had the same experiences as them, there's always a tiny nugget that you can connect with."
“I have to fight the urge to think what I would do as Carly.” She says, laughing that she herself was desperate to see Shug stay with Celie.
Spending so much time embodying and pouring so much emotion and energy into telling their stories, the characters that Carly plays stay with her long after the curtain closes. Referencing her role as Anita in West Side Story, she explains how she saw a “strong, worldly woman” become “bitter towards the world she had so much hope for.” As Shug, she could “understand why she would go with a young man. She's been hurt too many times, and that's why she can't commit to something… Shug can't believe somebody could love her even when she's at her worst.
“As much as it's a lesbian relationship, it's also about her finding different kinds of love. In my version, I think Shug has been hurt so many times that she has never known any love like Celie has given to her; even when she was a mess, when she was rude, with warts and all.”
Ultimately, The Color Purple is about realising the love you deserve, nourishing it, and accepting no less. This notion is something that Carly holds tightly. “I think as people, we like to be highly critical of ourselves. We’re always thinking; I wish I’d done this, or I wish I had that!” she starts, “We actually need to look inside ourselves and say, "what is it that I do love about myself?" I think we need to do that more often.”
“Whenever I play roles I want to work out what makes them tick, what adds a glint in their eye, what makes me excited to be that person and step into their life?”
If we apply that to our own lives, we realise we have a lot to feel joy about.
After performing in a show much about reuniting with loved ones and rediscovering your own strength and courage, all seems very fitting as Carly talks excitedly about the future of theatre in the coming months. “Our industry has been decimated but at the same time I'm hoping we'll be able to build it up again in a way that is more accessible to so many more people, and we can change some of the things that haven't been working for our industry in so many ways.” She says.
“People have been able to be so reflective; having quiet time, going on walks, making banana bread, doing things they wouldn't normally do and have been able to look inside themselves. I hope that in that they will be able to create something that represents themselves and what they want to share.
“People should tell their stories about their culture, things they have been through and hopefully we'll be able to experience that with audiences to feel the buzz. But, I do think for now it has been amazing to experience theatre online and feel like you're in the room. There is an art to it.”
Later this year, Carly will be stepping into the role of Jane Seymour in the hit musical, Six. Laughing, she recalls that she was sleeping when the announcement was first made, and she woke up to 2,000 followers and fan-art to mark the occasion. “[The Queendom] are literally out of this world!” she says proudly, “I could not believe [the support], it was amazing.”
Saying our goodbyes and wishing each other well, I load up the Spotify app and play the iconic song by Earth, Wind & Fire. I smile. I just have the feeling that come September, Carly Mercedes Dyer will have a lot to celebrate as she takes her rightful place, and reigns.
Watch The Color Purple - At Home to 07/03/2021. Buy tickets, here.