Rebecca Greenfield
November 27, 2015 06:45 PM

Oprah is thankful for many things, including her students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

The former daytime talk show queen spent a memorable Thanksgiving Eve, treating 20 of her girls to a Broadway performance of The Color Purple starring Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks and Cynthia Erivo.

“Particularly this time of the year, you’re giving some energy and thought to what it means to be in the world and being able to have access to opportunity, which is what has happened with my girls,” Winfrey, 61, told PEOPLE after the show.

Joining her students in the audience at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre were best pal Gayle King and Winfrey’s longtime partner Stedman Graham.

“When [Cynthia] sings that song ‘I’m Here,’ she’s singing that to my girls. Everyone was crying because every one of them has been through their own set of challenges coming from really challenged background,” she added.

Winfrey – who is one of the producers of the play – starred in the Steven Spielberg-directed film adaptation, which scored her a 1985 Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She’s currently producing a documentary special on the revival, chronicling the debuts of Hudson, Brooks and Erivo on the Great White Way. Oprah Goes to Broadway: The Color Purple will premiere Dec. 19 at 10 p.m. on OWN.

“I think that message of no matter where you’ve been in your life, no matter what kinds of obstacles you had to face and how put down you have felt, the fact that you are still here and you’re still standing – that message resonates with everybody.”

The $40 million girls’ school in South Africa opened its doors in January 2007 to 152 students handpicked by the media mogul. The Academy was built from a promise she made to former President Nelson Mandela to give students a better future.

The whole group
Rebecca Greenfield

Winfrey shared her first time watching the Broadway production with one of her students, Nkosingiphile Mabaso, who called it “the highlight of my life so far.”

She told PEOPLE, “It was amazing, I wept. It was moving, it was real and it meant everything. I want to see it again – I want to bring all my friends and family!”

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