In my mind, Cynthia Erivo’s name is synonymous with strength and confidence. But it’s not just me. “Diva,” “lion,” and “dragon slayer” are just a few of the ways people have described her since she burst onto the US theater scene in 2015 with The Color Purple.
A brief recap for those who don’t follow these things obsessively like I do: It’s 2015. Hamilton reigns supreme on Broadway. It’s all anyone can talk about… until Cynthia arrives. She’s a British transplant, making her Broadway debut in what could be another tired revival of The Color Purple. But the instant she hits that stage, eyes widen and jaws drop. Awards whispers flourish. The Drama Book Shop, New York’s go-to stop for Broadway bibliophiles, devotes its entire window display to her (and not to Hamilton) the week before the Tony Awards. She nets herself a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy, for this single, stellar performance. She becomes Broadway royalty.
In The Color Purple, Eviro’s character Celie is repeatedly raped by her step-father, forced to part with the two children she bore by him, sold into an abusive marriage and compelled by her husband to cut off ties with her sister, the only stability she’s had in her life.
As the show draws to a close, Erivo launches into “I’m Here,” an anthem of strength and self-worth. With that song, what began as a story about victimization becomes a reminder that, no matter what we can’t control in life, we can choose to love ourselves. It was a transformative moment, even for those in the audience. If you haven’t seen it, by all means, watch it now:
Cynthia Erivo was born in London to Nigerian parents. Offstage, Erivo is a fitness junkie and an outspoken advocate for social justice. She uses social media to post frequent videos of her exercise routines and to confront internet trolls with her head held high. I have long admired her strength and determination, so when I had the chance to speak with her before her November 4th performances at the Kennedy Center, my questions revolved around a common theme: Just where does this strength come from, and how can the rest of us learn to be dragon slayers too?
Nicole: In general, how has your life changed since The Color Purple?
Cynthia: Um, everything about it has pretty much changed! I am doing things that I have only dreamed of doing. I’m doing film now and music and working with people that I used to admire from afar. It’s wonderful to be a part of a community that can influence the way we see the world and the way other people behave towards each other. I get to spend my time with strong, intelligent people whose reason for being is to make the world a bit of a better place.
You have a choice to live in the US or the UK. What does it mean to you to be a woman and a person of color living in the US in the Donald Trump era?
I feel like strangely enough, it’s the perfect time for me to be here. In these last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I believe in, how I want myself and others and women of color to be treated. Right now, the US is the place that is having the loudest conversation about these issues. So being here now is super important to me because I can actually effect some change for people. Even if it is on a small scale, I know that my voice is being listened to. People are listening when I tell them that they are allowed to be confident, to look strong or be strong. People are listening when I tell them they are allowed to be different and be excellent and do things that they didn’t think they could do and dream about things that they didn’t think they could dream about.
There might be a time when I decide to go back to London and do the same thing there but right now I think that here is the place I need to be.
I know that you are an avid practitioner of physical fitness. What roles do physical fitness and mental fitness play in your life?
I used to dance and a teacher of mine would say that it was important for the person to be fit for the job instead of waiting for the job to make you fit. That stuck with me and I feel like I’ve applied it to everything that I do. Physical fitness is a way to access mental fitness. When you allow the body to move the way it needs to, to expel energy that it doesn’t need to hang onto, to become strong, you give your mind a way to do the very same thing. To be able to do some of the movements that I am able to do, I have to switch my mind on. And that sort of physical-mental connection is a great thing to apply to everything else that you do. When your excess energy is already gone because you put it into your physical well-being, then you are able to focus. When I need a bit of space and clarity, I work on my body, the thing that houses my mind and soul and being so that it will be strong enough to protect everything within it.
Another thing I’ve noticed about you is that you are very outspoken on social media and handle online trolls with great finesse and confidence. Where does that confidence come from?
Probably my fervor for what is right. Not being right, because I know that I can’t always be right, but I do believe that there is a way to do the right thing. So, anyone will tell you that my thing is noticing when I think there is a teachable moment. If someone insults me in a specific way, I don’t want them to believe that it is ok to do that to someone else. If I feel like it is something that needs to be checked, I will always speak on it, to make sure that person, and anyone else watching, knows that is not the right way to treat someone or be treated. There is a way to call people out on things without insulting them. I tend to really just pick at facts. If I know something, I know something, if I don’t, then I don’t speak on it.
Because I am very new to…. I don’t even know if I can call it fame to be honest right now, because I don’t believe that of myself yet… but because I have this new platform where people listen to what I say, I use it to make sure people know that it is not right to be hurtful to others.
What advice would you give to people who are struggling to find that sense of empowerment but maybe don’t have it?
I guess the first thing I would tell them is that your gut will tell you when something is wrong. I think we always know when something is not right. We have intuition and people tend to shy away from using their intuition but I would say use it. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. I think that as long as you are coming from a place where you don’t want to hurt a person but you do want to teach them something, then I don’t think you can go wrong.
I never come from a place of wanting to injure or insult. It’s not constructive, it’s not helpful. I do come from a place of “I would like you to learn this in this moment. I would like you to understand that this is not the way you speak to people. I would like you to understand that this is not the way you speak to me.” And that isn’t to hurt someone’s feelings, it’s just to teach. Obviously, not everyone is in favor of learning, but my intentions are never to hurt someone’s feelings. So that is the advice I would give other people, to come from a place of wanting to teach and to do the right thing as opposed to hurting someone’s feelings.
What does it mean to you to be the first class of Tony Award winners who were all people of color?
I was really proud to have that as our title and to be a part of history in that way. You know, there are young boys and girls of color who watched that and went “Oh my gosh, this is possible! We can do this.” I think it changed a lot of things.
That night is still… I still have to convince myself that it really happened. It is an honor to be a part of this group of very excellent people. Renée is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met and deserved it more than anything. Leslie is like my brother, and Daveed is probably one of most cool and gentle and talented and creative beings I’ve ever met. They are my friends. To be a part of a group like that on the night that they achieved this and to be friends with all of them… it was epic.
Renée Fleming VOICES: Cynthia Erivo plays two performances tomorrow, November 4th at 2pm and 7:30pm at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.