Introducing Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, ‘The Color Purple’s’ Young Celie: ‘This Is Work I Was Meant to Do’

Introducing Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, ‘The Color Purple’s’ Young Celie: ‘This Is Work I Was Meant to Do’

Movies

Turning 30 is always a memorable moment, but “The Color Purple” actor Phylicia Pearl Mpasi rang in her third decade with a birthday serenade from Oprah Winfrey.

Coincidentally, Mpasi’s birthday (November 16) fell on another special occasion: the first screening of the musical reimagining of “The Color Purple.” The atmosphere was charged with anticipation since this was the debut of the film before critics and press, but the mood backstage was particularly jovial since it was the first time the cast — Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey and Mpasi, as well as Winfrey, producer Scott Sanders and director Blitz Bazawule — had assembled since wrapping production in 2022. But there was an extra element of emotion for Mpasi, since “The Color Purple” marks her feature film debut.

On stage at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, Mpasi, an alum of “The Lion King” on Broadway, described her journey to book the role of Young Celie — an abused and uneducated Southern Black woman at the turn of the 20th century, who begins Alice Walker’s seminal novel as a teenager, pregnant with her second child by the man who raised her. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, 1985 movie, Broadway musical adaptation and, now, the 2023 film chronicle Celie’s path to liberation. Mpasi had heard that the latest version of “The Color Purple” was in the works and came across a notice to audition on the same day she buried her beloved grandmother.

“In our family, she was the Celie – someone who went through a lot of trauma in her life,” Mpasi explained to the crowd, in a Q&A moderated by Variety. “We’re from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and my first time going home was to bury her. And the day we put her in the ground, I saw the notice for this audition online, and I was like ‘Grandma, thank you! How’d you work so fast?’”

Mpasi’s cheerful delivery of the emotional anecdote elicited a laugh from the audience, who were still drying their tears from the heart-wrenching screening. They understood what she meant — her path to earning the role was anointed. “It was work she could not do on this Earth, she had to transition to do it,” she explained, as the audience chuckled and clapped. “Just looking at everyone here, it’s just a reminder that dreams come true every single day.”

Earlier that year, Mpasi had set a goal to be part of a musical movie or TV show and created a playlist to “put myself in a vision of a life that I want,” which featured “I Believe,” the song Barrino recorded when she won “American Idol” in 2004. Turning to Barrino, who plays the adult Celie, she added: “You were the blueprint to me growing up.” And now they’re sharing the responsibility of playing the same role. “I don’t take any of this lightly, and I’m so, so grateful to be here,” Mpasi said.

After the conversation ended, Winfrey and the cast sang her “Happy Birthday” (the Stevie Wonder version, naturally.)

But that emotional evening was only the beginning of Mpasi’s “Purple” press tour. A few weeks later, on Dec. 6, the newcomer walked the purple carpet at the film’s world premiere at the Academy Museum accompanied by her mother, three sisters and a few of her best friends.

“This is a dream come true,” Mpasi told Variety at the event. “I wished for it. I wrote it down. I manifested it. I prayed for it and I’m just so excited that I’m here.”

It’d taken a lot to get to this moment, where she was rubbing elbows with Hollywood heavyweights like Angela Bassett, Alicia Keys, Ariana DeBose and producer Steven Spielberg, all of whom attended the star-studded Los Angeles premiere. Mpasi originally auditioned to play the older version of Celie , but was told that she read too young for the part. Thinking that she wouldn’t get cast in the movie after all, she tried to move on and focus on her work as a staff writer for “Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladies.” Then the call came — Barrino would play the adult Celie, with Mpasi as her younger version, meaning it’d be her mission, as she sang and dance on the Georgia set, to lay the foundation for the character’s arc toward self-actualization. Mpasi had grown up hearing that she looked like Barrino, but the real challenge was making sure that the two Celies felt like one.

“I was on set whenever I wasn’t filming, so I’d just be in a corner watching her hands, watching her head tilt and just listening to her voice,” Mpasi explained in an appearance on Jennifer Hudson’s talk show. “Anything that [she] sang, I listened over and over again.”

Her dedication — and perhaps her late grandmother’s divine intervention — paid off, with Winfrey describing her performance as a “knockout.” In fact, the first time Mpasi saw the finished cut of the film, which hits theaters on Christmas Day, she didn’t recognize herself on screen.

“I just remember bawling,” Mpasi told Variety, summing up the experience as transformative on screen and off. “It was work I was meant to do — not only for the film, but for myself. I grew and I healed a lot.”

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