First came orange — and now purple. Danielle Brooks seems to be working her way through the rainbow, and it’s paying off.
The South Carolina native and Juilliard grad first made a name for herself as an unexpected breakout star of Netflix’s prison series “Orange Is the New Black” (playing Taystee, the lovable, maternal inmate who had that unfortunate obsession with evil Vee in season 2). Now, she’s co-starring alongside Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson in the revival of “The Color Purple,” which opens at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Dec. 10.
Brooks, 26, plays Sofia (the feisty role that Oprah Winfrey made famous in Steven Spielberg’s film version) and is making her Broadway debut, as are co-stars Hudson (playing seductive Shug Avery) and British newcomer Cynthia Erivo (as Celie). Taking time out before a recent preview performance, Brooks chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Is it true the first Broadway show you ever saw was . . . “The Color Purple?”
Yes. I was 15. My dad took me.
What do you remember?
My eyes were opened to a bigger possibility of what my life could be. I saw people onstage who looked like me, had similar skin tone. I’d never seen anything like that on that level. So that . . . was a changing point for me. I found my purpose. Later, in my senior year of high school, I auditioned for Juilliard, and got in.
Pretty intense — going to Juilliard right out of high school.
I thought it was just gonna be an extension of high school where . . . we’d play all day. (She laughs.) But they taught me how this is a business. It took a minute for it to click that . . . ohhh, this is how I’m gonna pay my rent. How I’ll eat. I had to grow up quickly.
Where did you learn to sing?
In church. Yes, I have the story of almost every Southern black girl. (She laughs.) I was this rambunctious little girl in the front row at church. My mother is a minister, my father is a deacon, and they still attend that church. A lot of church members who’ve known me since I was 3 have come to the show during previews. Many of them had never been to New York, or seen a Broadway show, or been on a plane. So that was quite an experience for me . . . to give them a reason to see what the world has to offer. They’ve known me since I was a little girl and helped shape me as the actress I am — or the artist I am, I’d rather say. The whole reason I love theater is because of the church and . . . oh . . . I’m sorry, I’m getting off topic.
Not at all.
It’s just that, to me, the two are so similar. In the church you have a congregation. In theater, an audience. In church you have a preacher who knows the Bible stories — in theater it’s the director. The stagehands are like the church ushers, and the ensemble is the church choir. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. With both, you hope the audience or congregation leaves with . . . something — hope, strength, faith. Even the part where they say, “Unwrap all your candy, and turn off your cellphone.” (She laughs.) It’s like what you do in church.
And what about TV? What’s it like now that you’re several seasons into a hit series?
Our trust level now is so high. We know how the show works — and if I’m in a scene with Uzo [Aduba] or Adrienne [Moore], I understand their rhythms. It makes the work so much easier. It’s such a sisterhood. I’ve been shooting the new season of “Orange” and rehearsing “Color Purple” at the same time. The day of my first preview for my first Broadway show, I was really nervous. I’m like, “Shouldn’t you have no distractions, and get in a very Zen place?” No — I had to be on set for “Orange” that morning. But the girls were so supportive — Adrienne, Uzo, Samira [Wiley] — we all got in a circle and they prayed for me and sent me off with good energy. It’s what I needed — sisters, and words of encouragement. I’m starting to find that bond with Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo, too.
It’s unusual — three stars of a musical, all making Broadway debuts.
There have been days I’ve been exhausted . . . and Jennifer’s been there for me with a plate of food when I come in from “Orange.” Or Cynthia — who’s across from my dressing room — just taking a moment before the show, asking, “You OK? You good?” I‘ve been blessed, in my short career, to work with people like that. I hear it’s rare. So I’m really grateful.