Oprah Winfrey surprises students

April 13, 2012, 2:09 a.m.

Members of Stanford’s production of “The Color Purple, the Musical” received text messages and phone calls from the play’s director, Brandon Jackson ‘13, early Thursday afternoon. Jackson told them he was convening an emergency meeting at 4:00 p.m. to discuss the future of the show, and his involvement with the production.

“A lot of them were nervous,” Jackson said. “But I had to throw something out there to get them to come.”

Oprah Winfrey surprises students
Facebook lit up with updates Thursday afternoon about sightings of Oprah Winfrey around campus. Winfrey was touring the Farm with students from her Leadership Academy for Girls. (Courtesy of Rameerah Anderson/Blackstage)

According to Jackson, many members of the cast and crew missed classes and left work earlier so they could attend the meeting at the Black Community Services Center (BCSC). After everyone arrived, Jackson–along with Jan Marie Barker-Alexander, assistant dean of students and BCSC director–told the crowd that they had important news about the status of the show.

But instead of any news being announced, media giant and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey walked through the door.

“No one believed that she was standing in the room,” Jackson said. “Once people realized, everyone started cheering and clapping and hugging, and were really overwhelmed.”

“She was just as magnetic as she was on TV,” wrote Kelsei Wharton ‘12, a cast member who was present at the meeting, in an email to The Daily. “It was truly amazing to see how she captured everyone’s attention and commanded our respect.”

The reveal, however, wasn’t a complete shock, Wharton said. He had heard earlier in the morning that Winfrey had toured the self-op Xanadu. Combined with the fact that Winfrey had starred as Sofia in the 1985 film version of “The Color Purple,” Wharton said, “It made sense that we would be called for an important meeting on the day that Oprah was on campus.”

Still, he added, “I never imagined that she would be walking around and engaging students on campus all day long.”

Winfrey spent Thursday touring the University with two students from her Leadership Academy for Girls, which she founded in South Africa in 2007. Winfrey was spotted around campus taking pictures with Stanford undergraduates and being serenaded by the student a capella group Talisman.

Barker-Alexander said Dean of Admission Richard Shaw put her in touch with Winfrey because two students from Winfrey’s leadership academy had expressed interest in applying to Stanford during the upcoming admissions cycle. Gayle King, Winfrey’s close friend whose daughter Kirby Bumpus ‘08 attended Stanford, also helped connect her with Barker-Alexander.

Winfrey and the two students attended a lunch with Shaw, Barker-Alexander, Judith Goldstein, director of the international relations program, and two Stanford undergraduates, Michael Tubbs ‘12 and Tumisang Madigele ‘13. According to Barker-Alexander, Tubbs and Madigele were invited because their academic interests matched those of the prospective students. Tubbs conducted research in Cape Town, South Africa, and Madigele is an international relations major and international student from Botswana.

“It was incredibly inspiring, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, something that I still can’t believe really happened,” Tubbs said.

Tubbs said he was notified of the lunch only moments before.

“Stanford is a place where you get surprised,” he said. “I’m so thankful, and humbled, and I thought, ‘This can only happen at Stanford.’”

Tubbs said a highlight was Winfrey reaffirming his desire to improve his hometown community of Stockton, Calif., where he is currently a candidate for the Stockton City Council.

Talisman member Nick Biddle ‘14 also said he heard midday that Winfrey had visited Xanadu. This launched a series of texts to the Talisman chat list that notified everyone to be on the watch for Winfrey, he added.

“We were all on the lookout,” Biddle said. “Anything that we heard about we would text to the list.”

He said emails told members to try to study in areas where Winfrey might be likely to visit, like White Plaza and outside Hoover Tower. Finally, the group heard from a Talisman alumnus that Winfrey and two students had attended a class at Encina Hall.

The group performed “Avulekile Amasango,” a traditional South African song, outside of the hall as Winfrey and students were about to leave on a golf cart, Biddle said.

“They stopped [the cart],” Biddle said. “They got out, and started singing with us, and also did all of our motions with us.”

Biddle said that the students were surprised that the Talisman members knew the meaning of the song, the title of which is translated to “the gates of heaven are open, we are crossing the River Jordan.” The group also performed “Be Like Him,” a gospel rendition of another traditional South African song.

“It was absolutely one of the best experiences we’ve had as a group probably,” Biddle said. “I think universally it just felt really great because [Winfrey] kind of affirmed what we do.”

Jackson said that he had been working for the past few months with Barker-Alexander to have Winfrey attend Stanford’s performance of “The Color Purple.” He said the play, which is being put on through a partnership between the Stanford Drama Department and Black Stage, went through a difficult approval process last spring quarter over concerns that the production would not have enough funding.

While the play won’t open until May, Jackson said having Winfrey visit was “almost like coming full circle…her to see the impact that we’re making here at Stanford that she made on a global scale.” Winfrey was a producer of the original Broadway version of “The Color Purple” musical.

Wharton said after the discussion he introduced himself to Winfrey and shared that he will be performing Harpo in the upcoming Stanford play. Harpo is the husband of the character Winfrey played in her performance.

“It was a great experience that made me critically think about my role in investing in others and always doing what I can to lift everyone up to their fullest and deserved potential,” he said.

However, most of the discussion was focused on the prospective students, Wharton added.

“They talked about how their academy in their hometown is much like Stanford–it’s a bubble,” Jackson said. “They share fears about whether or not they are ready for reality, and what comes along with that. It was very good to hear how brave they are in even applying to school, and show far they have come.

“It was indescribable,” Jackson said of Winfrey’s visit.


Correction: The online version of this article has been updated to reflect that Xanadu is a self-op.

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