THEATRE

‘I’m ready to grow up’: young actor debuts in The Color Purple

Neptune show tells story of abuse and hope with help of teen

Each night, Lyris Daye lies in her bed in Cole Harbour and speaks to God.

“Thank you for everything that’s been happening to me so far,” she says as she prays. “I just finished my last semester. I got into Dalhousie. I got (casted in) The Color Purple.” She says, “That’s basically everything I talk about to Him.”

On April 12, Neptune will become the first theatre in Canada to put on the musical, The Color Purple. Based on the book by Alice Walker, the musical was first performed on Broadway in 2005. Neptune’s cast, which includes members from across Canada, will begin rehearsals in March.

The story follows the coming of age of a black girl in the American south, Celie, who copes with physical and sexual abuse by writing to God and corresponding with her sister, Nettie, after being separated from her. Daye will play Celie’s daughter, Olivia, as well as a member of the ensemble and a church soloist.

The show marks a coming of age for Daye herself, the youngest cast member, who will turn 18 the day after the premiere. She has performed with a youth organization in the past, but the musical will be her Neptune debut. The show comes at a time when Daye is trying to start her career, identify her real friends and solidify her spirituality after losing a sister, as Celie did.

“She’s learning her identity. She’s learning self-love,” Daye says of the character. “Finally it’s my time to try something new,” she says. “I’m ready to grow up.”

Neptune’s luck

Jeremy Webb, the artistic director of Neptune Theatre, was in his office one day in 2017, looking at the website of a publishing company, Theatrical Rights Worldwide. He happened to be browsing through shows when he noticed the word “restricted” had been lifted from The Color Purple. He immediately applied for the rights to put on the show.

Webb adores the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1983. The title is a nod to a line in which a character says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Webb had also seen the movie and the musical on Broadway.

“It blew my mind as an experience,” he says. “It’s not an easy piece of theatre, but it’s the most uplifting music and hopeful show.”

In the winter of 2018, Webb heard back from the publisher.

“When I got the message that we got the rights,” he says, “I must admit that I might have fallen on my knees.”

Lyris Daye sits on the steps of her great-grandfather’s house in Halifax’s North End. Her great-grandfather was an activist and boxing champion, Delmore “Buddy” Daye.   Meagan Campbell

Road to Neptune

Beginning in sixth grade, Daye danced and acted with her half-sister, Amaria Diljohn-Williams, whom she visited each summer in Toronto. In public places, including at a community swimming pool, the girls would sing Super Bass by Nicki Minaj. They often wore matching rompers.

When Daye and Amaria held a party without informing their aunt, guests fled the house at the codeword: popcorn.

“She was like, ‘why are there streamers in the garbage?'” Daye says of her aunt. “Why’s the music all the way up at like 100?”

Drama, for Daye, is the only career she wants to pursue. Her father is a firefighter. Her mother is a school counsellor and her great-grandfather was Delmore “Buddy” Daye. Delmore Daye was a boxer, activist for African-Nova Scotians and the namesake of a learning institute in Halifax’s North End.

Daye is the family’s first actor, a dynamo who cares little for public opinion. At school and elsewhere, without notice, she tends to drop into the splits.

“I could be walking down the hallway, and I could just do the splits,” she says of a typical school day. “I’ll just come home, and I’ll just do the splits in the middle of the floor.”

Her fervour for theatre intensified in 2014, when Amaria was struck and killed by a transit bus in Toronto. Amaria was 14. While her half-sister can no longer act and sing, Daye keeps Amaria’s photo in her bedroom, surrounded by fairy lights.

Daye later joined an organization called Broadway in the H.O.O.D., an abbreviation for Helping Others Open Doors. Serving youth aged 10 to 20, it is based in Las Vegas, but Daye was connected to the organization through New Beginnings Ministries in Cherry Brook, N.S. She has performed in several shows including Les Misérables.

Last fall, Daye’s mother was sent a link on Facebook to the Neptune auditions for The Color Purple. Daye secured one of 16 spots in the cast. Daye does not consider what she will do in the future if she cannot make a living as an actor.

“There is literally nothing else for me,” she says. “It’s going to happen.”

Lyris Daye and her mother, Danita Williams, look at a program for The Color Purple inside Neptune Theatre.   Meagan Campbell

Debut

Daye is a Grade 12 student at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth. She has challenged for academic credit for her Neptune work but still needs to complete an English course.

“We’re not allowed to just yank her out of school and stick her on the stage,” says Jeremy Webb. “She’ll still be at school, so we’ve been working with her mother to make sure that her schoolwork and any courses and classes that she has to take are taken into account.”

Daye has been off social media because her cell phone broke in January. She doesn’t want to get it fixed because she has realized few of the people online care about her. She has 2,000 followers on Instagram, but when asked to count her friends, she says, “Close friends? One.”

Daye does not have plans for prom – “not a date, not a dress, not a reservation” – but last month, she won the school’s favour when she auditioned to be the mascot. She didn’t expect to be chosen, but she went ahead and improvised a dance routine in costume. The panther did the splits.

In late 2018, she says, she was not connecting with God.

“I realized that a lot of my spiritual path was off. I wasn’t praying consistently, and I wasn’t going to church,” she says. The Color Purple has reinforced her faith. “It is a very emotional roller-coaster show, and God is a huge part of the show.”

On opening night at Neptune, 40 of her family members will sit in the balcony, but Daye will not get distracted.

“I could be cartwheeling on that top balcony, and (she) wouldn’t even budge,” says her mother, Danita Williams.

Preparing backstage, Daye won’t speak to God but rather to Amaria. “I’ve actually never told anyone that,” she says. “Before every show, I’ll whisper to myself.” The words are always, “Come on, sis. Let’s go.”