A Newcomer Shines From Orange To Purple
In the opening scene of the premiere episode of Orange Is The New Black, breakout and comedic relief Danielle Brooks is singing the lyric “Ain’t nobody cryin’…” from The Staples Sisters’ “I’ll Take You There.” That brief moment singing in the shower, and others throughout the Netflix series, would only be the beginning of Brooks’ singing spotlight. Come December 10 (previews start November 10), she debuts on Broadway as Sofia in the revival of The Color Purple.
New York City Monthly caught up with Danielle moments after shooting on the set for the fourth season of OITNB. “I have to transform from Taystee to Danielle,” said Brooks. And throughout the discussion, Danielle got candid about her time in Juilliard’s demanding acting program, the experience of debuting on Broadway, and some of her top picks for shows on Broadway this season.
New York City Monthly: It’s kind of interesting, your two current projects are colors.
Danielle Brooks: That is the running joke. They’re like which color are you going to do next?
NYCM: For a person coming from South Carolina, Juilliard must have been a life-changing experience for you for your training and introduction to New York City, would you say so?
DB: Oh definitely, and an exciting one at that. I am so intrigued with people that live differently than myself so when I got to New York it was like magical ’cause there were so many people that looked and dressed so differently and I knew that they came from different walks of life that I was interested in knowing about. The first time I came was when I was 15 years old and I did an internship for diversity for Bravo, to learn about how to make your own videos and this diversity PSA. When they had me do that they gave us a free trip to New York and I got to take my dad, so it’s before Juilliard even came into the picture. I was like let’s go to a Broadway show and my dad took me to see The Color Purple. That was the first Broadway show I ever saw – the minute I saw LaChanze, seeing and hearing her, it changed my life. I decided this is what I need to do, and then I got really serious about the next step and finding a college to go to. I ran across Juilliard and at the time knew nothing about it. I was 17 at the time starting this journey. I became a woman in New York. I went through all of the hardships of becoming an adult and having to do that without my parents right there beside me, trying to find a job, trying to find an apartment, trying to get someone to hang up the TV for me. Some of those things that you don’t have when you’re not home are challenging. First, at Juilliard I was like, I don’t want to go home, I’m good. And then the first Thanksgiving rolls around and I find the nearest tree in Central Park and I started balling, ’cause it was the closest thing to home and to nature, feeling like I was home. First year of college, first holiday without my family. I realized I’m really out here by myself, 17 years old. I’m not here with cousins or aunties or my dad and mom. It was just me and my dream.
NYCM: You are making your Broadway debut in the revival of The Color Purple alongside Jennifer Hudson, who is also debuting on Broadway. You are joined by Cynthia Erivo as well, who seems enormously talented having already played Celie for London audiences. Have you even begun to wrap your head around the talent that is going to be on the stage in one room together?
DB: You know I haven’t had time. I haven’t had time to process what is happening. We got to do an interview and a photoshoot to get ready for The Color Purple. When we were doing the photoshoot and there was some jazz playing in the background, [the photographer] asked us to sing on top of it. I was like, am I really being asked to sing with Jennifer Hudson right now? So I did and afterwards she said to me “Mahalia Jackson” and it was such a huge compliment. I guess it was my energy and my sound. She said “I love your voice and you should play Mahalia Jackson” – which I do hope to play one day. It was such a nice compliment, I am just so thrilled to be working with both of them, and really with John Doyle who’s an amazing director.
NYCM: At Juilliard you had a dramatic focus, so what can you tell us about your musical/singing background, because most people know you as a comedic actress at this point, aside from a few musical moments on Orange.
DB: I’ve actually been singing since I was 3 or 4 in the church choir, and I would get little solos here and there. But I actually sang in front of church members and that’s an audience too. And at Juilliard I had a lot of opportunities to sing as well. It’s always been a part of me. I’m really excited to share this gift of mine that people don’t really know about. It’s funny ’cause when I was growing up in middle school there was a time where I had to choose between singing class and acting class. At the time I always chose acting, it was really hard though ’cause I loved singing just as much. Now to get to do both – if I act I can still sing at some point. I felt like if I did acting I would be able to sing while acting. And here it is. I sing two incredible songs – “Hell No!” is amazing, it’s such a fun number and so is “Any Little Thing.” I’m really thrilled to get to share with the world another part of myself and I hope to continue to do that in my career – shock people and surprise people and have people say I didn’t know she could see that. Here’s that beginning.
NYCM: Are there any shows you are looking forward to seeing this season on Broadway or any other activities you might like to partake in during your limited breaks from rehearsing and shooting?
DB: I’m going to the premiere of Whorl Inside A Loop. I love the theater. I love Hamilton, I just went to the premiere of that and the afterparty was crazy. Invisible Thread (previously titled Witness Uganda). I love jazz music, so you can always catch me at Fat Cat or Dizzy’s – I’m actually singing at Dizzy’s at the end of September with Bryan Carter so I’m excited about that.
NYCM: For the film adaptation of the popular game Angry Birds (Spring 2016) you lend your voice alongside many funny people including Broadway’s Josh Gad, a trio of Saturday Night Live stars – Maya Rudolph, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader as well as Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage. You already have quite the animated personality, but what is it like to be on a whole new platform performing as an actual animated character for something so popular?
DB: That was such a fun surprise. They asked me to do that and I was like yeah! I’ve never done animation before, I’ve done a few voiceovers for McDonalds back in the day – it was so cool because my character was going through a lot of different emotions and I was wondering how that worked, like do I just put it through my voice? It’s very much the same – if she’s crying, I have to cry, or laugh when she laughs. I hope to do more of it. I can’t wait for it to come out next year.
NYCM: Meanwhile, you’re playing Sofia, a role made famous by the one-and-only Oprah Winfrey. And to top it off, you said in an interview that The Color Purple was your first Broadway show you ever saw?
DB: Yes it is. I think that’s the beauty of the theater. You create these iconic roles and then you leave the shoes for someone else to step into and I hope to add as many layers and colors and beautiful moments and treasures into Sofia as Ms. Winfrey, and leave my mark every night. As well as Felicia P. Fields, she won a Tony. I’m so thrilled to get to do that, you know? And to make it my own and still get to carry on that legacy that Oprah started.
NYCM: Is there a lot of pressure for your Broadway debut? Knowing that Cynthia Erivo is coming off the same production from London, I wonder if it has felt like “catch-up” to you…and of course this is Jennifer’s Broadway debut as well, but she’s a seasoned performer, does that provide any added pressure or do you think it builds you up more and allows you to be the best that you can be?
DB: I think it’s very dangerous for someone to compare themselves to someone else. In the sense of like – just feeling insecure about where you are or ooh, I’m not ready cause this person has done that. It’s dangerous for me. So I don’t really focus on that. I know that I have training, I went to Juilliard and I’ve been doing this my entire life. I feel comfortable there, especially theater, that’s my stomping grounds. But I do hold myself to a very high standard so that’s where I feel the pressure comes for me. The theater is just, I don’t even know how it makes me feel and how much respect I have for the actors who do eight shows a week. I just – I bow down, like Beyonce says. It’s my turn to do that so I don’t take it lightly. But I’ve also been preparing for this moment, so I feel ready.