There may be no bigger shoes to step into than Oprah Winfrey’s, but Orange County native Carrie Compere has done so with little fear of comparison to the media mogul’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sofia in the 1985 film “The Color Purple.”
For the traveling musical production of Alice Walker’s book, which runs from Tuesday to June 24 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Compere has had one advantage the then-future talk show queen never had: many chances to repeat the role.
“I started with the Broadway revival as a church lady and I [understudied] for Sofia,” Compere said of taking on the part on the Great White Way. “So I had a chance to kind of finesse my way into the role without the pressure of thinking, ‘Oh, this role was played by Oprah before; what am I going to do?’”
When original Sofia Danielle Brooks left the Broadway production, Compere stepped full-time into the limelight.
“Once that happened, I [realized] this is my role, and I really need to infuse some of my DNA into this,” Compere said, adding that she and director John Doyle had multiple conversations about who Sofia is and what made her tick.
Sofia’s part in the arc of “The Color Purple” adds another layer of both hope and tragedy to a story that is equal parts heartache and aspiration.
As in Walker’s novel, the musical follows Celie (Carla R. Stewart), a turn-of-the-century Southern teenager from extremely difficult circumstances whose marriage to a man known only as Mister (Gavin Gregory) will bring even more complications for both Celie and sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara).
As the story unfolds, one of Mister’s sons, Harpo (J. Daughtry), soon falls for the headstrong Sofia, a kind soul who, despite her wish to avoid a tempestuous home like the one she came from, falls victim to more domestic abuse at the hands of her own husband.
Like her character, Compere is a wife and mother, and it was from her own sense of optimism and opportunity that she chose to build Sofia from the inside.
“I wanted the audience to experience the love that Sofia has for Harpo when they first meet her,” Compere said.
“I think it made it a little bit more grounded [to] really be able to start her journey on what it was to be so in love with somebody and then [be] so violated and betrayed by the fact that he introduced domestic violence into their home.”
Compere believes “The Color Purple” plays especially poignantly in light of the #MeToo movement, with a ferocious sense of cultural injustice now pointed at domestic and sexual violence.
Sofia’s seminal song in the show is called “Hell No,” in which she finally stands up for herself after a lifetime of abuse.
“Obviously domestic violence is still something that happens, [but] so many people are empowered by that song now,” Compere said. “Hopefully there’ll be a day where it doesn’t resonate as strongly. But it’s something that is cyclical, generational.
“How do you break that cycle? How does a man who has been taught to be abusive not be abusive? But then you see Harpo make a choice to do something different.”
Compere was born in Westminster and now lives in Trenton, N.J. She initially wanted to be a lawyer (“Being a lawyer is a bit of a performance, if you think about it,” she said) but when the acting bug bit, she never looked back.
She counts Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad and Tonya Pinkins among the performers who have inspired her. She has met many of her heroes and taken various advice from them on stagecraft.
“Being able to sit down with these beautiful, very established and grounded women and get these little nuggets [of wisdom] has really been a blessing for me,” Compere said.
In turn, Compere tries to offer counsel to young actors and actresses coming up through the ranks to follow their passions but also ensure they have the chops.
“Make sure that if you want to be a singer or actor or dancer, that you are actually skilled to do it,” she said, adding that despite her training, she possesses no degree in theater or musical arts. “Dream big, go after it, but make sure you have the skill set needed to be a success.”
Compere looks forward to reuniting with several relatives when “The Color Purple” stops in Orange County. She also aims to visit Disneyland with her husband during her downtime.
This particular version of “The Color People” is unique as Doyle “pared-down” blocking and repurposed simple props like chairs in scenes across various settings and time periods, Compere said.
“John Doyle is very purposesful in stripping away all the glam in order to really focus on the storytelling and the words being said and sung,” Compere said.
“Beyond the fact that this is a story about black people and black culture, it’s human lives and how they affect each other and how they connect and disconnect and reconnect,” she said.
“I think the power of possibility and the power of connection is what will make this story last,” Compere said.
If You Go
What: "The Color Purple"
When: June 19 through 24; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $29