While we’ve still got a few weeks to go until the June 17th Season 4 premiere of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, one of its stars, Danielle Brooks, has been keeping busy moonlighting outside Litchfield on the Great White Way, of all places.
The actress we’ve come to love as Taystee on OITNB made her Broadway debut last fall as Sofia in the revival of The Color Purple, which recently grabbed four Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical and Danielle getting a nod for Best Supporting Actress.
We talked with Danielle about the musical’s same-sex love story between Celie (Cynthia Erivo) and Shug Avery (Heather Headley, taking over for the recently departed Jennifer Hudson) and her role in the revival of the musical based on the queer-inclusive Alice Walker novel.
AfterEllen: Before joining this production, what was your relationship with The Color Purple whether it was the movie or the book.
Danielle Brooks: I don’t know if you knew this, but The Color Purple was the first Broadway show that I ever saw. Going into senior year [of high school] I had gotten a free trip to New York, because I had won this internship for Bravo TV, so my dad went with me and we had a little extra time in New York and he took me to the Broadway show The Color Purple and that’s the moment that it really shifted for me.
I did not know of this whole other world. I didn’t know about Broadway. I didn’t know that that was a possibility for my life until I saw that show and that was the moment I said I got to do this. I auditioned for Juilliard my senior year and got accepted and then the rest is kind of history from there, but I never would have imagined. I knew that the dream was to be on a Broadway stage but I didn’t know that my first Broadway show would be in the first show that I saw.
AE: It was meant to be Danielle, it really was.
DB: Come on, man. Okay?
AE: I loved your portrayal of Sofia because I think your personality comes through so much but then it’s not always happy for her along the way. Talk about just stepping into that character’s shoes and what you connect with it.
DB: I love her strength but I also like about her that she’s the strong bird but yet she falls and she still finds a way to pick herself back up and as a human being—not even just an actor—that’s what life is about, you know what I mean? You’re going to have ups and downs on our journey and you sometimes will be at your highest peak and be believing in yourself and feel like you can conquer the world and something will happen that will knock you down and you relate to that.
I remember a time before Orange had happened. I was auditioning a lot and got a call back and was really close to getting this job, an off-Broadway job, and my roommate booked it and my best friend also booked it and I didn’t and it was really hard for me to pick myself back up and I went home for two weeks to recollect myself and I said “Okay let’s pick ourselves back up, let’s do this again. It’s not time to give up.”
Being that I play this role eight shows a week, I am constantly reminded that it’s never over, and not give up on yourself, and so also I can relate to her every time that I sing “Hell No!” it’s such a big moment for me because I’m very transparent. I’m very honest with who I am and I have to say being on a Broadway stage eight shows a week can be very terrifying [but] every night that I get to sing “Hell No!” that’s my moment to say I’m fearless. I don’t care what’s going to happen. Hell no to my fears to those things that tell me I’m not great enough or good enough.
AE: I loved that in the show that the love that develops between Shug Avery and Celie is never really judged. It’s just love, which is a great message since it’s a pretty mainstream show and audience.
DB: Yeah, I agree with you. I love that there isn’t any judgment when it comes to that. The song that they’re singing is called “What About Love?” and we all are in search of that, no matter how we receive it whether that’s a female or a male.
There are nights where we’re in the house and the audience is with us, with them, in that moment and then there’s moments where people are still shocked and they laugh because they’re uncomfortable when they kiss or they’re making noises of like ‘I can’t believe that happened’ like big gasps of air. I think that’s where I want us to move forward where we’re not looking at two women kissing on stage, two black women, at that, kissing on stage as taboo or just something that is strange or something that shouldn’t be. I think with stories like this we’re allowing people to really normalize it and know that it is okay to love who you want to love.
I love the way that the story does that because it’s such a story about faith and about God and a lot of people that believe in God also believe that homosexuality is a sin but the way in which this story talks about God and talks about same-sex love, I think, is such a beautiful way to allow the audience to—what’s the word I’m looking for? To digest it in a way that is comfortable. Comfortable is not even the word I want to use either but to digest it a way that will actually affect them more than somebody just telling you to agree with someone else’s lifestyle.
And I’m saying it also in a culture, like the black culture. We really do sometimes look down on homosexuality, and a lot of our audiences are black and I love that we are challenging our people to look at love in a different way, and that’s also a part of what I’m trying to say as well, so yeah.
AE: Back when you were studying at Juilliard, was Broadway always the dream?
DB: Yes, Broadway was the dream. It sort of feels like I got the bonus before the dream that I actually wanted and Orange was that bonus, but now that I’ve experienced both I love both. I love doing television, I absolutely love getting to switch it up and actually explore a character for years and where that character develops and how it changes, but then I also love the theater because it’s very consistent, and you tell the same story every night and you try to find nuances and you try to make it fresh and new every night even though you’re doing the same thing eight shows a week, so they both have their challenges and they both have the highlights for me.
AE: Does it still feel surreal to you or has that kind of worn off since it’s been a little time now?
DB: It’s a mixture of both. Because my schedule is so busy and I don’t really have much time to think about things and take a breath—I just did a talk back for AOL BUILD and it was in a room full of aspiring actors and it’s great when you get to reflect on where you came from, you know what I mean? And it happens for some people, but people think this stuff just comes overnight and they think that you just have it so easily for people, but that’s really not my story.
I have worked really hard to get where I am in a short amount of time, yes, but I’ve fallen too, you know what I mean? I’ve had nights where I didn’t feel like I was going to ever work or get noticed in a room and to get to share that with people that are aspiring to do what I do. That’s what I love about my job is you get to go down memory lane and really take a moment to just be grateful for where you are and I don’t take any of it for granted because I’m blessed with two major jobs that are changing the world. People are going to the theater and having an experience and people are watching Orange Is the New Black and now when Obama is talking about it in his speeches—to get to be in things that are making an impact on the world also makes it so worthwhile, all of the late-nightness and early mornings.
Orange is the New Black returns with season four on June 17. The Color Purple continues at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre in New York City. For tickets visit the website.