Color her proud: Oakland’s LaToya London stars in `Purple’

When she was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, she was called LaToya London, the name the country got to know when she emerged as someone to watch on Season 3 of “American Idol.”

But these days, the “LaToya” is history and the “London” is preferred.

“I love the name I was born with, but as an artist, I prefer to be called London,” says the 28-year-old _ now with a single name, like Cher or Madonna. She’s on the phone from Chicago, where she’s finishing up the run of the hit Broadway musical The Color Purple.

London and the Purple company get some time off in between the Chicago run and the Oct. 9 opening at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

“Physically, I’m in Chicago, but my mind isn’t. It’s already home,” London says, referring to the Bay Area, where her mom, sisters, nieces, nephews and large extended family all live.

“The thing I miss about Oakland is the scenery,” London says. “The lake, the Bay, the bridge, driving down 80 and seeing the bridge over the water and that whole view when the sun is about to set.”

The Color Purple run in Chicago has been a good one for London, who received some nice reviews for her portrayal of Nettie, sister of main character Celie (played on tour by Jeannette Bayardelle(below, left, with London), a veteran of the still-running Broadway production).

Though the musical version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker novel was not fully embraced by critics, audiences have been another story. The show has proven profitable and quite popular.

“It’s a wonderful story of inspiration to anyone going through something negative in their life,” London says. “It’s a life-changing show. The musical is closer to the book than the movie was, and the music adds a whole other element. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it. Musicals can get cheesy, and this is not a cheesy story. But (composers) Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray did it brilliantly.”

More accustomed to the life of an independent singer, London says the theater is a grind.

“Eight shows a week — that’s the hardest part,” she says. “I’m used to the schedule I like. This is more like a 9-to-5 job. It’s definitely an adjustment for me.”

But she does love the acting. “Every night I discover something different about myself, and I feel my capability,” she says. “I just can’t wait to go further with different characters. Nettie is close to who I am, so it’s easy to relate. To challenge myself, I hope my next role is completely different.”

London was in Oakland briefly a couple weeks ago at her old high school, Skyline, to help launch a Color Purple-related essay contest.

The topic is “How I Changed My Life,” and if she had to write an essay on that subject, London says she’d write about how she changed her life by taking responsibility.

“When you stop blaming other people and actually embrace who you are, you can change yourself for the better,” London says. “No one can make you do anything, especially as an adult. That’s when you stop making excuses and start taking action to create your own destiny.”
Next up for London: a second album — “definitely soulful but fun and funny and spunky, more of who I am” — and movies.

“I’d like to work with Quentin Tarantino and do some drama or action,” she says. “We’ll see what comes along.”

London has been back to visit Skyline several times since her star has ascended, and every time, folks at the school are thrilled to see her and make a fuss.

“They treat me good,” London says. “That’s definitely different from when I went there.”

Then she laughs. The humorous side of London, the one she wants to make more visible in her next recording, is something America didn’t get to see much while she was on “Idol.”

“I was so quiet and reserved on the show,” London says. “There’s other sides to me. My friends and family see those sides every day, and they say to me, `The people didn’t get to knwo who you were. You’re fun and funny. Get that out there.’ I’m like a comedian and an improvisational actress. There are some people I know who would say about me, `This girl is nuts.’ It’s time for me to put that out there and let everyone see that.”

During our conversation, that fun side emerged several times. When I asked London if, during the Chicago run of Purple she got to spend any quality time with the show’s big-name producer, Oprah Winfrey. London said that some cast members were invited to be in the audience for a taping of Oprah’s show, and during one of the commercial breaks, Oprah introduced them.

“Afterward, we got to have our pictures taken with her, so there was a little small talk,” London says. “So I didn’t get quality time with her. I did have an orgy with her, but I had to share her.”

Then there’s a wicked little laugh. “Moving right along…” London says.

For information about The Color Purple, visit

And if you’re wondering if London has the goods or if she’s another “American Idol” hype machine by-product, just check out this clip of her singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the show.

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