Danielle Brooks: I won’t play the ‘angry black woman’

The Orange is the New Black star, who has won acclaim for her role onstage in The Color Purple, talks about diversity, stereotypes and Broadway

Danielle Brooks is internationally renowned for her portrayal of Tasha Taystee Jefferson on Netflixs Orange is the New Black, but when she first went in to read for the part, she was apprehensive.

Not only would the part require her to be topless in her first scene, but she also feared that she might be walking straight into playing a stereotype; she didnt want to play a part that might be construed as an angry black woman.

I remember Jennifer Euston, the casting director, saying to me, Shes not angry, shes more like the light of the prison, Brooks said. And right then I knew I wasnt going to play the angry black woman, I was going to choose to show a different side of a woman who was incarcerated.

She was cast in the show, and though her character had originally been slated to be in only two episodes, she has been a central cast member for four seasons. The show has since taken off, and Brooks has gained mainstream recognition as a result. Through this experience, Brooks said she learned an important lesson about herself as an artist: I will never play a stereotype, because I will always make sure I make choices that are rich and colorful and try to show more of a person than meets the eye.

The exposure from the hit showled to her being called in to audition for the part of Sofia in the revival of The Color Purple. She got the part, and when the show premiered in 2015, Brooks performed alongside Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo. The production won the Tony for best revival of a musical, and Brooks herself was nominated for best featured actress in a musical.

The content of these two productions isnt coincidental for Brooks: she seeks out projects that tell diverse stories, particularly the historically ignored stories of women of color. Though Orange is the New Blackis set in a modern womens penitentiary, while The Color Purpleis set in the sharecropping south during the first half of the 20th century, Brooks said both productions did an extraordinary job of bringing the experiences of women of color to the forefront.

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Danielle Brooks on stage in The Color Purple. Photograph: Matthew Murphy
Im so grateful that Im now at a point in my career where I can choose the work I want to do, because there was definitely a point where I couldnt, Brooks said. Now I get to say, I only want to work with people who are pushing the needle, and that doesnt only mean with the storytelling, but also with directors, producers and creators.

Referencing her recent work with Lena Dunham on Girlsshe was the first black woman to appear in the series and with Aziz Ansari on Master of None, Brooks said the people behind the projects were just as important as the material when it came to diversifying the entertainment industry.

Being socially conscious is nothing new for Brooks, who told a story of writing a letter to the mayor of her home town, Greenville, South Carolina, when she was in fourth grade. She was bothered by the flying of the Confederate flag.

I said to him, You know, theres so much pain and hurt that my people feel from this flag, she said. Being so young, I even made a new Confederate flag and put a heart in the middle of it, and I was like, Can this be the new flag? Of course that didnt happen, and he just wrote some generic letter back.

Her commitment to using her voice to draw attention to social issues hasnt wavered since her childhood days. Now, as a woman who works both onstage and on camera, Brooks said there were clear differences when it came to effecting social change. She believes the strength of television is its ability to reach mass audiences and references her shows commitment to discussing such social topics as police brutality, transgender issues and race relations.

The beauty of this is that Orange is the New Black can go into the home of some white boy in Wisconsin who has never heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, but he has fallen head over heels for this character named Poussey, and now he has been exposed to this movement, she said. He now has a better sense of whats going on in the world because of the stories were starting to tell.

Creating this type of dialogue, Brooks said, was what helped sustain her passion as an actor. Its funny, a few weeks ago I ran into Bree Newsome, the young lady who took the Confederate flag down in South Carolina, and we began to talk and I said to her, Thank you for taking down the flag, Brooks said. She voiced that she understands that what I do is part of that activism, as well, and that means the world to me.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Danielle Brooks in Orange is the New Black. Photograph: Netflix

Brooks said that her emotion in the dramatic conclusion of the most recent season came straight from looking at the New York Times and seeing Michael Browns father crying over his sons casket.

Thats the power of art it really does imitate life if you are conscious enough about it, she said. I am thankful Jenji Kohan and the writers of Orange is the New Black are taking that stand instead of just giving us this fou-fou-fluff television to watch.

Brooks said she was hopeful for the future of both TV and theater; she believes they will continue to create and foster conversations about injustice and activism.

When it comes to TV its a slow burn right now, but I think were doing it and we have to just stick with it, she said. Right now I feel excited by the material I am seeing. From Queen Sugar on OWN to Atlanta on FX to Master of Noneon Netflix, there are a plethora of new shows that are coming out that have diverse groups of people in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

In regards to theater, Brooks said she felt like Broadway had a solid history of putting on diverse shows.

But where theatre can do better is with how they market to people, she said. We can do better with trying to have much more diverse audiences.

Each night, Brooks said, she walks into the show and most of the audience is white.

The ideal for me would be a show where the audience is made up of people of all types, ages and colors who are coming to see it, but thats not the case for most shows, she said. Im not sure if thats a money thing or if its more of an issue of who people are publicizing these plays for, but its something Im interested in: I want to focus on this issue of getting the audience to be more diverse.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/01/danielle-brooks-orange-new-black-color-purple-broadway-diversity-stereotypes

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