NEW YORK — Broadway sensation Cynthia Erivo is getting the chance to take her Tony-winning performance in “The Color Purple” global — and it’s all courtesy of first lady Michelle Obama.
On Monday afternoon, before an invited audience of schoolgirls from New York City and the spouses of heads of state from around the world, Erivo, who plays the lead role of Celie in the revival, will deliver a rendition of her inspirational solo from the show, “I’m Here.” The song asserts Celie’s right to pursue the dream of a “bountiful life,” as she rises above desperate and seemingly hopeless circumstances.
It’s a number that likely will carry even wider emotional significance in the confines of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where Obama and her White House staff members have organized a 4 p.m. concert and presentation to promote the messages of Let Girls Learn. Launched by President Obama and the first lady 18 months ago, the initiative seeks to reinforce the urgency, especially in underdeveloped countries, of creating and enhancing educational opportunities for a group under particular stress: teenage girls.
“To be part of something that encourages them to embrace their brilliance is paramount for the future of all the countries of the world,” Erivo said of Monday’s program. With the help of longtime Broadway producer and Obama supporter Margo Lion, the event has been arranged to also feature performances by cast members of three other Broadway musicals, “Waitress,” “Wicked” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” All of them focus on the stories of women who overcome formidable obstacles and reach a more profound understanding of their self-worth.
The program was assembled to coincide with the gathering of world leaders in New York for the opening of the 71st United Nations General Assembly. Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff, said that Michelle Obama has created an event for the spouses of the visiting leaders about every other year during her husband’s presidency.
The Broadway community, many of whose leaders are enthusiastic Obama supporters, was deemed a natural conveyance for the aspirational efforts of Let Girls Learn.
“This is an opportunity to raise this issue up around the world,” Tchen said, adding that the musicals reinforced the tenets of the program by showing “strong women standing up for themselves. It’s a great way through the music. . . . You can get a message out through culture, to use culture as a hook.”
The multifaceted Let Girls Learn initiative involves governments and corporations in raising money for and awareness of increasing educational training for adolescent girls, who in some countries are denied the access accorded to their male counterparts. The idea was hatched as a result of a 2013 meeting of the Obamas with Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani Nobel laureate and advocate for girls’ education, who was shot and seriously wounded by Taliban terrorists after she spoke out on the issue.
At the announcement of Let Girls Learn on March 3, 2015, the president laid out the scale of the problem. “Sixty-two million girls around the world who should be in school are not,” he said. “That’s not by accident.”
Since then, companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, JetBlue and Starwood Hotels have committed resources to the effort. The State Department, Peace Corps and U.S. Agency for International Development are among the governmental participants in the project. Last year, USAID announced, for instance, that it planned to provide $100 million in aid to Jordan for the construction of 25 schools, 70 percent of which would be for girls.
Jordan’s Queen Rania al-Abdullah will address Monday’s gathering, which will be emceed by Stephen Colbert. Gertrude Mutharika, the first lady of Malawi, in southern Africa, will also offer remarks, as will Michelle Obama.
Aptly, too, three young women — from Jordan, Malawi and Pakistan — will speak about their personal educational experiences. One of them, 23-year-old Noor Abu Ghazaleh of Jordan, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, worked with USAID, helping assess girls’ schooling needs in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Ghazaleh described in an email interview what she learned through the focus groups she conducted in the Al Talbieh camp. “It seems to me that access to a safe and friendly learning environment is one of the main obstacles teenage girls face,” she wrote. “In addition, there are some harmful traditions that persist in specific communities that don’t value educating girls, so girls in these communities drop out at [an] early age.”
Extolling the value of coordinated international efforts like Let Girls Learn, she also noted that the event Monday would let her enjoy Broadway for the first time, ever.