Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, Broadway Star of The Color Purple
ELISABETH WITHERS-MENDES is making her Broadway debut starring as Shug Avery in The Color Purple. She has recorded and performed with artists Luther Vandross, Cher, Celine Dion, Henry Krieger, Narada Michael Walden and others. She sang on the steps of the White House with Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg for "The 2000 Millennium Concert." She co-wrote the single "Emotions" which held the #1 spot on the Billboard Music Charts for three weeks straight (BMG Records).
Elisabeth's TV credits include one of the Vowels on the hit children's show "Between the Lions" (PBS TV) and Sweet Tree & Morgan on NBC's "Late Night Show with Conan O'Brien."
Ashford & Simpson recommended Elisabeth to Quincy Jones for the role of Shug. Elisabeth thanks God, her loving husband, little daughter and her beloved family. She holds a BS from Berklee School of Music and a Master's degree from NYU.
She really seems to "have it all", but how does she manage to do it all? Elisabeth is amazing, that's how. She is an optimistic go-getter who absolutely believes in herself. She is warm and funny and fun, and she brings out the best in people.
Elizabeth is -
DR: So Elisabeth, tell me about your life and your work.
EWM: Well I started out as a frizzy haired little girl in Joliet Illinois, which is a small town just outside of Chicago. I grew up in the church where both my parents, who have married now for over forty years, instilled in me education. They encouraged me to just be real and true to who I was and what I wanted to do.
So, while my sisters and brothers were going into chemistry and math and medicine, I said
"I want to do music!"
They encouraged that. Their only stipulation was that I had to get a degree first. Well, I could not stand the rigor of school because I liked being creative and school just moved too slowly for me.
But that was their deal -- I had to get a degree and then I do whatever you wanted to do after that.
Elisabeth and Oprah Winfrey
So, I graduated from Chicago Academy of the Arts. By the way, Oprah is a sponsor of that school. Then I took two years off because I wanted to travel. I was determined to convince my parents that I didn't have to go to school but they were still determined that I would go to school.
Eventually I decided that I wanted to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. My parents said that I could go to Berklee if I first went to Junior College and proved myself. So I went to Junior College for two years, the whole time writing and singing and still trying to make contacts and pounding the pavement...
Because I ended up making the Dean's List and doing very well in Junior College so my parents let me go to Berklee. That is where I got a lot of my training and schooling in all of the techniques of music and singing. I graduated from there and took two years off to travel with the Winans, Yolanda Adams, Amy Grant and a lot of the Gospel Artists. I decided that since I finished school so quickly, I would move to New York but I knew that my parents would protest. Too make a long story short, I got accepted into New York University to do my Masters degree.
During that time I did a lot of commercials. I worked with Jennifer Lopez on her first couple of albums, and Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Celine Dion, George Clinton and a lot of different people. I was also doing commercials and trying to get established with the different talent agencies. It was during that time that I met Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Once I finished at NYU, I met my husband. I started writing more music and performing live in clubs. I was doing a lot of commercials at that time, Between the Lions and Sesame Street. I am still on Between the Lions doing one of The Vowels.
Well, the next thing I know, I am talking to my husband and I'm saying
"I love performing but I really want to take some time off and have a baby."
"What are you talking about? You are on a roll with your commercials and with the TV stations, with Conan O'Brien..."
"Look I really want to have a baby".
So we did.
When my daughter Chelsea was three months old I got a call from Nick and Val, Ashford and Simpson, and they said,
"Elisabeth, they are casting for The Color Purple and we think that you would be great."
Well I was in "mommy mode"! I was taking care of my baby and my husband. We had just bought a house and I really wanted to spend time at home. So they said.
"Elisabeth, just go in and talk to them. Scott Sanders called Quincy Jones and Quincy Jones called us and --
THE COLOR PURPLE is NOW PLAYING on BROADWAY
Click here to view a video including interviews with the cast and creative team behind THE COLOR PURPLE.
they are looking for Shug Avery.
We think that you would be great and we gave them your name."
"Gave my Name! I just had a baby!"
Then they said,
"Look. Just go in. We're not going to tell you who else is auditioning for the part but you would be great!"
So I went to audition. I asked my husband to wait downstairs in a "No Standing", "No Parking" area because I was going to sing my song and come right back downstairs. I went upstairs Dana, and I sang my song, barely even noticing that Robin Givens was right there. But I remember thinking "She is so pretty". Jada Pinckett-Smith and all of these different people were there auditioning but my mind was not even on it. I went upstairs and I auditioned and they asked me if I would come back and I said "Yeah. O.K. and I got back into the car and went right back into "mommy mode".
Meanwhile I was getting all of these phone calls that I had been dying to get my entire career from record labels and all of this.
"Now you are calling me! All of this time I had been pounding the pavement and pounding on the doors and it was taking you forever to respond and NOW! Now that I have had a baby, you guys are coming in by the droves and I just want to be a Mommy!"
Anyway, I went back in again for The Color Purple and again I asked my husband to wait downstairs with the baby. This time they said,
"Elisabeth, we want to see you one more time."
So I said
"Tell me what the job is going involve and I will let you know if I can even do it or not."
They told me that it was going to involve a nude scene and a kissing scene. So I said,
"Well maybe I should tell you that I just had a baby! I just had a baby!"
"Elisabeth we want you to do the part. We would be honored if you would play the part of Shug."
Dana, I cried like a baby. You know you've got that post partum thing going on...
DR: It must have been like someone was taking your child away.
KWM: Yes! And giving me another one!
But you know what? This entire journey has been like Christmas to me. It's like somebody asked me "What do you want for Christmas?" and me saying everything that I want:
- A record deal
- A major role on Broadway
- A healthy beautiful baby
- A husband that I love
Everything that I have asked for, I have gotten. It's like I have been opening presents everyday and it just keeps coming. People are talking about the possibility of a Tony. Now I don't know about that just like I didn't even know that the Shug Avery thing would happen. But, the fact that these things are happening is like Christmas to me.
God, thank you Jesus! Thank you God!
DR: Wow! That is awesome!
DR: What was one of the wisest things that anyone has ever said to you?
EWM: The director of The Color Purple, Gary Griffin, said to me...
The day before the "GRAND" opening, where they were going to have "everybody" in the audience, I realized that in theater nothing really changes. The moments change because you have different temperaments everyday and different audiences. But the blocking, the lyrics, the songs, and the dialogue -- that never changes. When I really realized this I thought "I am a woman of change not a creature of habit. I can't do that."
Totally undaunted by my apprehension, Gary said,
"I know that you can do it. Every night that you walk out on that stage, it will be different. If you really listen to Celie, or Mister, you will respond differently each time somebody says something to you. It will change every night."
Every single night, that has stuck with me. That is what has helped me every single night on that stage.
DR: What is one of the wisest things that you have ever said to yourself?
EWM: The wisest thing -
I constantly stay in prayer. Pray. That is the wisest advice and act that I have carried throughout my entire journey.
DR: How do you define your success?
EWM: A work in progress.
Everyday it is like a flower unfolding and different presents that I get to open. There is a new blessing everyday. My whole prayer is "God let Your holy will be done." I have noticed that when I do that He adds a whole different extreme dimension; something that I never even thought about praying for.
I am a work in progress.
DR: Can you describe your relationship to failure?
KWM: You know what? I don't embrace failure. There have been some things that I have prayed for and I have gotten and some things that I have prayed about that I haven't seen manifest yet, but I never embrace failure. I don't even use the word in my vocabulary. I look at it like God is telling me that those things that I haven't received yet, that's His way of telling me that He has something better for me. Sometimes it's about being patient. Every time I wait, He always makes it better than I could have imagined. Like my daughter. I would have never imagined something like her.
God always says,
"Yes" or He says "Wait 'cause I got something better for you later."
Photos from the Broadway production of THE COLOR PURPLE.
photos by Paul Kolnik
DR: Do you ever get disappointed in yourself?
EWM: Yes of course.
DR: Tell me about that.
EWM: When I feel like I haven't cooked a dinner for my husband and I know that he has been so awesome to me. If I haven't gotten a certain amount of time in the gym or if I let a scene get a head of me because I was thinking about laundry.
I am very hard on myself.
DR: How do you overcome that disappointment in yourself?
EWM: I just say "That moment has passed Elisabeth. Catch up! Catch up 'cause the train is still moving! You better catch up or you're gonna miss the whole trip!"
DR: And if you could wake up tomorrow having gained one new ability, what would you want that ability to be?
EWM: The ability to have arms like an octopus so that I could do more in a day. Really. At the end of the day I am always wishing that I could have done this or that, so to have the arms of an octopus.
DR: What is the greatest lesson that you have learned so far?
EWM: The greatest lesson that I have learned is to keep everything in perspective and to prioritize.
I wake up in the morning and I have to feed Chelsea and have my quiet family time. Then I have to shoot off and work on my album - during the day we are working and recording. In the evening I try and get to the theater about an hour before I have to be there because I have to have some down time. Then I do the show. When the show is over at 11:00 at night, the car picks me up, takes me back home and by the time I get home at 11:30, its time for Chelsea's bottle and to put her back to bed. Then its husband time and I have the contracts to look over and I've got the next thing and I've got emails...
There are all these different things that I am handling and juggling -- interviews and performances and deadlines. It's a lot. I have found that when I prioritize things and focus on what is most important right now, that sustains me. That is what has gotten me through.
DR: It all sounds so good...
EWM: It is!
DR: What is the best part of all of this?
EWM: The best part of all of this is being around people that believe in me.
The mere fact that I have Scott Sanders who is responsible for Queen Latifah's successes, and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson who are responsible for so many great songs that are currently out there and that have been sung by some of the greatest singers like Diana Ross. To be under the wing of Alice Walker and Allie Willis and Brenda Russell and Steven Bray and my husband Damon Mendes - all of these people and, God above it all, who say:
"Yes! She can do this!"
...To believe in me to do it night after night after night...
People are always asking me if the Director directed me to cry every night. No. When I think about the confidence that people like Quincy Jones have in me,
"She can do this!",
To hear those things is like an answered prayer. That is the biggest success to me.
DR: What has been your biggest contribution to the world so far?
EWM: My biggest contribution has been to my daughter and to my husband.
Also, before I go out on stage every night I always pray that God will let His will be done. I pray that people will be blessed and that they will see that if I can do it, they can do it. The emails that I get from people are a blessing to me and I think so far I have been a blessing to others.
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
EWM: I want people to say that she was a real genuine spirit. I want them to say that they gained something from me. I want to be remembered as someone who came from a "nowhere" town called Joliet and ended up on Broadway stage starring in a featured role like this and yet I still maintained values and dignity.
That is what I want to be remembered for,
being honest and true to every role that I play and every song that I sung...
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