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The Color Purple's Stephanie St. James

by Hillel News | Jul 11, 2008 |

Currently touring as Squeak in the Broadway production of "Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple," Stephanie St. James doesn't bear a Jewish-sounding name or resemble a traditional-looking Russian. But she is both with roots in Israel and Guyana as well. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, St. James fiercely defends the State of Israel and her Jewish upbringing even when it makes for awkward conversation.

Singer/Actor Stephanie St James.
Singer/Actor Stephanie St. James is the daughter of a Russian Jewish mother and Guyanese-born Israeli.

Like most female stage actors, "The Color Purple" star Stephanie St. James won't divulge her age. But, she'll tell you anything else you want to know, no matter how personal.

Her real last name, for example, is Smith. But she wasn't the first Stephanie Smith to request a Screen Actors Guild card and so she adapted her Guyanese father's first name to create a new surname.

Another topic she isn't shy about addressing - race. People passing St. James on the street would assume she is black, or African-American, but she doesn't identify as either.

"I'm Russian and Guyanese," she says. "My roots are not African or American."

She prefers to be described as "a woman of color" and strongly identifies as "a proud Jew." St. James, whose Hebrew name is Sarit, says that "many, many times" throughout her life she has experienced racism and anti-Semitism.

"It's not obvious to people that I am a Jew," she says. "It's more obvious that I am a person of color…people make anti-Semitic remarks in front of me, not knowing there is a Jew in the room."

Just last year, a work colleague made an offensive reference in front of St. James sparking her to respond "maybe not in the calmest and coolest manner." But she makes no apologies about that. Injustice, as she explains, hits very close to home to the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.

"My grandmother was one of only two Jews in [her Polish hometown] to survive the Holocaust," explains St. James. "There was a raid. All the Jews were forced to dig a large grave and [the Nazis] assassinated them in it."

St. James' white, fair-haired grandmother hid with neighbors and later fled to Israel where she started her own family. Her daughter, born in Russia and raised in Israel, married St. James' father, a Guyanese-born Israeli and together, they relocated to Northern California. Both St. James and her brother were raised to be culturally, rather than traditionally, Jewish.

The Color Purple is now touring in Philadelphia.
The Color Purple is now touring in Philadelphia.

In the late 1980s, St. James' grandmother came to live with the family in the United States. The two spoke multiple times a day, even after St. James left home to pursue her passion at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. She landed several minor roles before being cast as the biracial Squeak in the Oprah Winfrey production of "The Color Purple." Currently on tour in Philadelphia, St. James acknowledges her late grandmother in the show's playbill.

Critics have described St. James as a poetess and a dynamo, "someone you can't stop watching whenever she is on stage." Attributing much of her achievement to her mother's technique of visualizing success, St. James says that as young as five, she and her brother were told to envision their goals as a means of reaching them.

"I guess it was like the early beginnings of The Secret [the law of attraction]," St. James laughs. "When that became popular [in 2007], my family said 'Oh we've been doing that for years!'"

By 15, St. James was spending New Year's Eves designing goal books, journals filled with magazine clippings of women doing what she wanted to do.

"When I look back [at the goal books]," St. James says. "Everything I projected for myself came true. I wanted to sing, be on stage, see the world, and that's what my life has become."

St. James lived in Japan for a while and has traveled twice to Israel with plans to return in August when "The Color Purple" wraps. Shows are scheduled through the summer in Georgia, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Stephanie St James.
St. James is an outspoken advocate for endometriosis.

The actress is also looking forward to some downtime so that she can get her foundation up and running. As yet unnamed, St. James plans to create an organization that supports women suffering from endometriosis, a gynecological health issue that has plagued her for many years. Though there is no cure for the incredibly painful disease, a result of abnormal tissue growth outside the uterus, St. James has made significant progress battling it. For years, however, she suffered undiagnosed and underwent several invasive surgeries to alleviate some of her discomfort. When she began to speak about her ordeal publicly, she says she was inspired by the hundreds of letters she received.

Though marriage and children are not in her immediate future, St. James is adamant about raising a Jewish family, even though her current boyfriend is a non-Jew.

"My Jewish roots and history are very important to me… [My children] will definitely know they are of Jewish heritage and that it's something to be proud of. They will know of the sacrifices that were made."

In the meantime, she is certainly not at a loss for Jewish suitors. Male fans who have read about her in the Jewish press regularly send letters and gifts to her shows. "I know it's every Jewish mother and grandmother's dream to marry a nice Jewish boy," St. James laughs. "But I believe we fall in love with who we fall in love with and we can't help what color [they are] or what religious background they come from."

You can read more about Stephanie St. James and listen to her music on her Web site.

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