‘Color Purple’ brings Jewish actress to the Fox

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Most people would not expect to find a Jewish actress on stage in a production of The Color Purple, the musical based on Alice Walker’s novel about an African American woman in the rural Deep South of the early 20th century.

In fact, singer/actress Stephanie St. James is Jewish. She plays the role of Squeak in the musical The Color Purple, which plays at the Fox Theatre, Oct. 21 through Nov. 2. The singer/actress is the granddaughter of a Shoah survivor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Ad for 'The Prom' at the Fox Theatre


This daughter of a Jewish couple, who met and married in Israel, grew up speaking Hebrew at home.

In fact, Stephanie St. James is dedicating her performance at the Fox to the memory of her Grandmother Sofia, who was an inspiration in her life.

“My father is from South America and my mother is actually a Russian Jew, who was given by my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, to a man, who was escaping Russia, when she was 12. He left her on a kibbutz in Israel. Two years later, when my grandmother could get out of Russia, she came to Israel and found my mother,” she said.

“They remained there until my mother met my father,” she said. “My father ended up in Israel on a scholarship for college, so they actually met at school.” Her father, who is from French-speaking Guyana, is of African descent and converted to Judaism.

Later, her family, including Grandmother Sofia, moved to the U.S. “I was born in Miami,” Stephanie St. James said. “My brother was born in Israel.”

“My father got a job teaching at the University of Miami. He came to America first and when he could afford to bring my Mom and my brother, he brought them out.”

The small family later moved to the small town of Santa Rosa, California, when St. James was three. Her grandmother joined them after they moved to California.

Even after moving to the U.S., the family spoke Hebrew at home. Her family’s roots sprang from different countries, different languages, different racial backgrounds but what united them all was Judaism.

“Especially in northern California, where I grew up, there were very few families that were racially mixed, let alone mixed ethnic and Jewish families. I mean, how many half-black, half-white, Jewish, children did you find?” she said.

“There was only one synagogue in Santa Rosa. It was a very small Jewish community,” she said.

The singer/actress cites her grandmother Sofia as one of the strongest influences in her life. “She played a major role in my life, so much a part of my everyday life,” she said. “I am very, very proud of my Jewish roots and the history of my family and it is something that inspires me in my life on a daily basis. Whenever I come to something in my life that makes me think ‘how could I ever move past this,’ I think of my grandmother and all she survived. It’s what keeps me going.”

Her Polish-born grandmother survived the Shoah because she was out riding her horse when the Nazis descended on her small village, killing everyone except Sofia and one other Jew. “Her parents, her brothers and sisters, all murdered by the Nazis,” St. James said. “The whole village was made to dig an open grave and they were all shot.”

“My grandmother was not your typical-looking Jew. She had blonde hair and gray eyes, and so a neighbor, who was a non-Jew, hid her for a night and she ended up hiding in the Black Forest, where my grandfather, who was a partisan, found her. She became a partisan, a freedom fighter, too.”

After the war, Sofia and her daughter found themselves in the Soviet Union. Her grandmother and the other survivor from her Polish village became lifelong friends, and the families all ended up together in Israel.

The singer/actress’ musical talent comes from her father. “He played guitar and sang. My family recognized I had this musical talent. My brother sings too,” she said. Her family encouraged her to audition for a role in a musical. “From there, it never really stopped,” she said.

When they held auditions for the Broadway production of The Color Purple, St. James was overseas and missed the auditions. “When I was home in L.A., I heard that there were auditions for a national tour. I knew I was right for the role of Squeak,” she said. She auditioned and got the job.

“The amazing thing about The Color Purple is that it has no color lines, no religious lines. It is definitely a story about an African American community in the South but it is really about the human experience. The story of Celie and the adversity and atrocities that she faces, as a young girl and through her life as a woman, is something any one can experience,” she said. “We all have the same human experience, no matter what our backgrounds are.”

Not only is St. James an actress and singer but also she is a songwriter, a budding author and an advocate for awareness of the disease endometriosis. She is now working on an autobiography about her unusual family and her life.

“I have been in the process of writing an autobiography, the history of my family as well as my experience with endometriosis,” she said. St. James has been an active advocate on behalf of those suffering from the disease, which is more prevalent than breast cancer.

“When people hear the story of my family, they often say ‘that should be a movie’ or ‘you should write about it,’ ” she said.