St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.
Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.
Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.
St. James isn't sure how her grandmother survived.
"She never liked to talk about it," the actress said.
At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.
"One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem," St. James said.
In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.
"My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it," St. James recalled. "I can still understand quite a bit, but I don't speak it."
Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.
"I am Jewish," she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother's dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.
Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.
"My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English," St. James said. "She wasn't happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day."
In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.
Her mother recognized Stephanie's talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of "Grease," "Fame" and "Footloose," as well as in films.
When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.
"The Color Purple" is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical's Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny's Child.
For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org