After she finished singing at her first audition for "The Color Purple," Carolyn Minor-Daughtry recalls hearing someone exclaim, "Yes!" She'd never tried out for a stage musical, but she took that as a good sign.
On her way out she met Chase Kniffen, director of the Virginia Repertory Theatre production, who complimented her on her audition. "Remember that and choose me!" she told him.
It took three more auditions for Kniffen to decide, but eventually he was won over by the inescapable allure of Minor-Daughtry's sassy personality and knock-out vocal chops.
The 48-year-old mother of two will make her stage debut playing Shug Avery, the feisty nightclub singer who regularly rocks the worlds of those around her in the adaptation of Alice Walker's celebrated novel.
Kniffen says he had to be especially certain about casting this particular part. "It's a very important role because [Shug] essentially turns the story," he says.
Like the novel, "The Color Purple" follows the life of Celie, a 14-year-old living in rural Georgia who's pregnant for the second time when the show starts. She's given over for marriage to a local farmer, known only as Mister, who physically and emotionally abuses her. Celie's life turns around when Mister's lover, the glamorous but ailing Shug Avery, comes to town and Celie nurses her back to health.
The rest of the show is powered by the changing relationships among Celie, Shug and Mister. Kniffen says Minor-Daughtry has no problem navigating that intense emotional terrain. "She has so much talent and brings an authenticity and newness to the role," he says. "The only things we've had to work on are simple things like, be sure and turn out to the audience."
Minor-Daughtry will be able to learn a lot from one of her co-stars, an accomplished stage veteran. After a decade acting in national tours and working on Broadway, Jerold Solomon won't be coming to town only to play Mister — he and his family will be moving back to stay.
Solomon was a Richmond favorite while studying at Virginia Commonwealth University, starring in many Theatre IV productions such as "King Island Christmas" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
"My goal initially was to graduate and go to Hollywood to become a movie star," he says. But with his muscular voice and intense stage presence, Solomon scored his first major role in the national tour of "Ragtime" right out of school. After that experience, the attraction of New York was too enticing.
"I had been a Yankees fan and a Giants fan since I was 6 years old," he says. "The pull was just too strong."
Solomon worked regularly with roles in national tours of "Big River" and "Annie" before a two-year stint in the lavish Lincoln Center production of "South Pacific." While his acting résumé was burgeoning, so was his family. He met and married his wife, Alison, and had two children in quick succession. A call from Kniffen got Solomon and his wife to consider moving back to Richmond.
"I always heard Jerold's voice as Mister," Kniffen says. "It's got such strength but also a vulnerability. Mister can be hard as nails but he changes in the show. Jerold has the kind of voice makes that transformation work."
"My wife and I thought and prayed about it for months," Solomon says. "I had never thought about Richmond through the prism of family life. We really want to set up strong roots for our kids and that's hard to do in New York."
When Solomon's wife landed a job with a local hospital, it sealed the deal. "Everything has worked out somewhat miraculously," Solomon says. "You can really see God's hand in all of this."
A strong sense of faith connects Solomon with Minor-Daughtry, who's made a name for herself as an author of inspirational children's books. She took the title of her first book, "I Am Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," from a phrase in Psalms. Faced with the challenges of the publishing world, she decided to self-publish. When sales took off, she followed up with "I Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthens Me" in 2012 and is working on two novels.
But Minor-Daughtry isn't writing much right now. "I'm concentrating on being the best Shug Avery I can be," she says. "It feels good. I feel like I should have been doing this all along."
Solomon agrees. "Carolyn's been doing great," he says. "The first time I heard her sing, I thought, 'That's Shug.'" S
"The Color Purple" will run at Virginia Repertory Theatre from June 20-Aug. 3. For tickets and information call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.