“The Color Purple” has changed Mekhai Lee’s life more than once. More than twice, in fact.
When the fledgling thespian was 14 and in his first year at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts, he picked up a copy of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel about uneducated, impoverished Celie, who’s raped at 14 and then forced to marry a physically and mentally abusive widower.
“I read the book and watched the movie by myself. Then I heard there was a musical and bought the cast album,” says Lee, calling from Seattle, where he recently finished a run in the small role of Grady in the national Broadway tour of “The Color Purple.” The musical begins its six-night, eight-show run at Belk Theater Tuesday.
“My first day of sophomore year my theater teacher says, ‘You’re going to love me come spring,’ ” he recalls. “He knew how much I loved the book, the movie and the musical.”
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By spring, Lee was playing Mister, the male lead in the very first high school production of “The Color Purple.”
The NWSA production inspired GreyHawk Films’ award-winning “Purple Dreams” documentary about the student musical. Lee’s teacher and the musical’s director, Corey Mitchell, has since won a Tony for Excellence in Theatre Education.
But it was the production’s journey to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., that helped route Lee’s professional course.
“That’s where I found out about the University of North Carolina School of the Arts,” Lee says. “That festival is the reason I went to school there. I wouldn’t have gone to that festival if it weren’t for our school production. And here it is full circle.”
Lee spent his last semester at UNCSA auditioning for talent agents during class showcase trips to Chicago and New York. One of those auditions was for director John Doyle’s “Carmen Jones.” Doyle had helmed the London production of “The Color Purple.” When Grady needed to be recast midway through the national tour, Doyle remembered Lee.
“It wasn’t even on my resume,” Lee says.
Lee was set to graduate from UNCSA in May. He’d headed back to Winston-Salem to pack up his house after his audition.
“I’m looking at the 50 other guys in the room thinking, this will be one in 100 auditions,” he says.
On a Wednesday, he got an email offering him the part of Grady. That Saturday, he graduated; and by Tuesday he’d joined the tour in San Francisco.
The tour ends Aug. 27, but the cast will do a month-long production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. That means Lee won’t be unemployed when he signs his first lease in New York City on Sept. 1.
“My ideal next project is to have a next project,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t mind being an understudy in Broadway’s “Angels in America,” or “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
“I’d be glad to start something new as long as it feels right. The reason I chose ‘The Color Purple” is it felt like the right time. I feel like I followed my heart in that way,” he says. “When I think of what it means for me and what it’s done for my career, as well as my heart, it can move me to tears.”
‘The Color Purple’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (July 10-12), 8 p.m. July 13, 2 and 8 p.m. July 14 and 1:30 and 7 p.m. July 15.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-413-7972; www.blumenthalarts.org.