By Deardra Shuler
Up a small step, across the stage, around a corner, ascending stairs, and down a lengthy corridor finds Elisabeth Withers-Mendes basking in the heat of her well heated dressing room at the Broadway Theatre. However, not even the theatre heat compared to the warmth of Withers persona.
Elisabeth must live a charmed life because the path traveled to her success has been a relatively short one. Not only is she new to Broadway having plucked the plum role of Shug Avery, in The Color Purple as her first professional acting role, the talented singer recently debuted her new album “It Can Happen To Anyone” on Blue Note Records.
“The Color Purple” is my first professional acting experience and “It Can Happen To Anyone” my first CD,” remarked the Joliet native. “Music has always been a part of my family. My father is a musician and my mother a music lover. My mother loves blues, gospel, and classical while my dad loves big band and theatre. So fortunately for me, I was exposed to a variety of music. When you are a kid you don’t notice things about your parents but looking back now, I realize my parents are really cool. They allowed their children to be individuals. I have a brother who is in medicine, another brother in math and a sister in chemistry. Music was my choice and my parents were supportive and encouraging.”
Withers-Mendes went from her hometown of Joliet, Illinois, to Boston where she attended the Berklee College of Music. From there she went to New York where she acquired her Masters after receiving a scholarship to NYU. “I was in Catholic School all my life so when I got out I wanted more freedom. I wanted to be around other artists. I wanted to be challenged. I have always believed in putting my best foot forward so whatever I do, I do my very best. People remember you when you give the best of yourself every time,” stated the multitalented performer. “After college, I began working as a backup singer. I sang background for people like Erika Badu, Jennifer Lopez, Luther Vandross, and even sang in orchestra pits. AFTRA knew who I was, SAG knew who I was, but the common public had no idea who I was,” chuckled Elisabeth who also worked with Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson on a show project entitled “Pipes.”
“It was Ashford & Simpson who called Quincy Jones and recommended me for the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple. At the time, my daughter Chelsea was only 3 months old and I wasn’t certain I could do it, but they assured me I would be perfect for the part so I auditioned. Three days later I was hired. I have been in the show 2 years now,” said the singer and new found actress who won a Tony nomination for the role.
“When I first saw Shug Avery in The Color Purple movie, I noticed she was ageless. She was feisty yet malleable. My mother and the ladies in my family are like that. They’re fun loving yet know when to get down to business. I had a lot to draw from when developing my character,” claimed the young actress about playing the seasoned Shug Avery.
Elisabeth stepped off the show for a hot second to promote her new CD “It Can Happen To Anyone.” “Out of the 11 songs on the CD, I wrote 8 of them,” claimed the young songwriter. “The songs are little diaries of the things I have experienced in life and things other people have experienced that I find interesting. I recognize that so many people have dreams and aspirations. It’s my hope that when people listen to my CD they feel inspired to say to themselves “I can do anything I set my mind to do,” explained Elisabeth whose first single “Be With You” has already made the top 10 on the Urban AC charts and was a Hot Shot Debut in Billboard. Elisabeth is planning a mini tour to promote the CD. She returned to The Color Purple on February 3rd where she had a 4 show weekend. Withers recently appeared at Joe’s Pub located at 425 Lafayette Street on February 5th.
A wife, a mother, a singer, a songwriter, an actress, Withers has a busy life. “It’s all about prioritizing my schedule. I realize that I have to have time for my child, my husband, my family. I have to keep appointments and exercise. I try to figure out what is most important and focus on that. When I do, it seems I am able to make everyone happy. I get my daughter up every morning at 7 o’clock, prepare breakfast, get her to school, pick her up at 2:00 p.m., and then start family time until 5:00 p.m., then, I get ready to do the show. My husband, Damon Mendes, does a lot of music production, songwriting, and plays drums for different bands. He is also my music advisor and Music Director,” remarked Elisabeth. Withers exercises her humanitarian bent by donating children’s clothing to churches, under privileged children and shelters containing battered women with children. “I like to give anonymously. That way it feels more like I’m giving from the heart,” stated the generous thespian.
Oprah Winfrey is one of the producers of the Broadway production of The Color Purple. “Meeting Oprah was like meeting grace, success, and accomplishment. She is centered, confident, yet she can sit on your coach in a pair of jeans and laugh with a great sense of humor. There is a certain sense of humility about Oprah. That same spirit is infectious and has spread among the cast members. In fact, I would have to say that Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker, and Scott Sanders brought that wonderful ebullient spirit to the cast and to the show from the very beginning.”