Danielle Brooks wants everyone to be able to enjoy a Broadway show, but says the industry has work to do when it comes to making that true for audiences of color. “There’s a lot of people that feel they have ownership over Broadway, and the way people sit in a theatre and are supposed to act,” Brooks told Playbill during a recent NYC visit.
A star of stage and screen, she’s arguably best known for her Emmy-nominated and SAG Award-winning performance as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson in seven seasons of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Brooks was last on Broadway in this season’s all-star (and now Tony-nominated) revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. In other words, Brooks has a bigger platform than ever with a career on a meteoric rise.
And she’s using that platform to make sure that the next generation of theatre artists are afforded the same opportunity that she was to see, enjoy, fall in love with, and be inspired by live theatre. For Brooks, that moment came at age 15 when she saw LaChanze in her Tony-winning performance as Celie in the original production of The Color Purple. Brooks would go on to star in the work’s 2015 Broadway revival, earning a Tony nod for her performance as Sophia. And the impact continues—Sophia is also Brooks’ next screen role, in the upcoming movie-musical version of the Alice Walker novel hitting movie theatres this Christmas.
But more on that later.
Brooks’ passion for making a more hospitable and equitable Broadway led to her becoming a producer on 2019’s Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, a jukebox bio-musical about the iconic group. The move is part of a growing trend on Broadway, placing celebrity power on producing teams as well as cast lists. And Brooks is in good company. In the last few seasons, Broadway has seen names like RuPaul, Don Cheadle, Mindy Kaling, Billy Porter, Alan Cumming, Ilana Glazer, and LaChanze producing shows, to name but a few—Real Housewives star Kandi Burruss and husband Todd Tucker signed on to the upcoming The Wiz revival just this week.
Brooks knows what you’re thinking. “I’ve made no money doing this,” she admits. “That was not part of my agreement or my goal.” Details behind these agreements haven’t been made public, but it feels safe to assume that celebrity producers are likely not contributing the same kind of monetary investment—nor participating in profits—like a more standard producer setup. A cynic might point out that the trend gives celebrities another chance to win Tony Awards—Brooks’ Color Purple stage co-star Jennifer Hudson became an EGOT winner with a producing credit when A Strange Loop won Best Musical at the 2022 Tony Awards. However, the more important goal is to bring those celebrities’ audiences to the theatre to see shows they might not otherwise. Whether or not that’s working remains to be seen, but none of that was Brooks’ concern when the opportunity to join the Ain’t Too Proud team fell into her lap.
“I went into it not so much to be able to say I had a producer credit, but to learn,” she explains. “I sat in on some meetings and just soaked up what it is to promote Broadway shows, how they do that, and how money is divvied out, and casting and all those things. That was more exciting for me than just being able to slap my name on something.”
As for what she learned, Brooks says Broadway has its work cut out for itself, specifically the aforementioned expectations on audiences that can feel oppressive to communities of color. “You’re trying to tell people of color that they cannot sing along and enjoy themselves to music that was written by Black people, performed by Black people in the Civil Rights Movement. It makes no sense to me.”
Now, let’s take a step back. Brooks advocating for audience sing-alongs can sound incendiary, particularly in light of some reports of truly deplorable audience behavior in the last few weeks. Perhaps most egregiously, a recent performance of the U.K. tour of The Bodyguard had to be halted so that two women, reportedly so intoxicated that they were scream-singing along as if at a sloppy karaoke bar, could be forcibly removed.
But Brooks isn’t advocating for that kind of audience behavior. She's not talking about distracting, drunk, or disruptive audiences, but instead Black audiences accustomed to engaging with performances in ways that white audiences aren’t—and theatre written specifically for it. She's talking about a kind of audience experience that is fiercely connected to the action on stage. If you've been lucky enough to experience this live, you know how transcendent it can be—and a powerful expression of community. Is there anything more theatrical than that?
Brooks’ mind was changed on the issue, ironically, after she shushed her own mother while attending a performance of the 2013 Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful. “Cicely [Tyson, the revival’s star] starts to sing a hymn and my mother started singing along with her,” Brooks remembers. “I freaked out, but the next thing I know, she’s still singing and the entire audience joins in to sing with her. It shut me down, and I learned a lesson. I can’t ever police behavior like that. Don’t ever stop somebody from enjoying the theatre. It could create one of the most beautiful moments that you ever have.”
Those beautiful moments of community are especially vital to Brooks, who knows how isolating it can be as a Black woman in a predominately white theatre industry. That was part of why she teamed up with fellow Broadway artists Amber Iman and Jocelyn Bioh in 2020 to found Black Women on Broadway. The non-profit started as an effort to provide Black women in the theatre creative guidance and mentorship during the pandemic, when many in the community—including Brooks—were feeling a little lost. The project has since expanded to include the Black Women on Broadway Awards, which will hold its second annual ceremony at NYC's Knickerbocker Hotel June 5. Set to be honored this year are Some Like It Hot star NaTasha Yvette Williams, receiving the Audra McDonald Legacy Award; SIX The Musical and Little Shop of Horrors star Joy Woods, receiving the Florence Mills Shining Star Award; and wig designer Nikiya Mathis, receiving the Kathy A. Perkins Behind the Curtain Award.
Brooks describes 2022's Awards as one of the more emotional evenings of which she's been a part. "The one thing that we know for sure is there's only so many positions for us, only so many stories that really center Black women," says Brooks. "Most of the time we are fighting for the same roles, the same positions. This space is reminding us that we're in it together. I specifically think about the sisters that are the only ones in their shows. I think about Brittney [Johnson, the first Black Glinda in Wicked on Broadway], or Emilie Kouachou [the first and only full-time Black Christine in Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera]. This space that we're creating is reminding Black women that we're not alone. It's this camaraderie that we get to share together, and in celebration instead of exclusivity."
And she knows that this is important on both sides of the curtain, which is why Brooks, Iman, and Bioh have established that Black Women on Broadway will always be equitable between actors and non-actors. Just like Brooks wanted an inside look at the industry as a producer on Ain't Too Proud, she uses Black Women on Broadway to pay that forward to the next generation. "We have ambassadors, four to five young women that are in college who help put this event together that day," Brooks explains. "Not only do they get to learn firsthand how Jocelyn and myself and Amber are producing this, but they also get to be surrounded by women that they aspire to be, like Audra McDonald, like LaChanze, like NaTasha Yvette Williams. They get to be in that room with these women and get to learn from them and be inspired by them. That's what it's about."
But it's hard. Working to crack any long-held Broadway tradition, much less advocating for letting audiences sing-along—you're liable to get an angry comment section. Brooks, though, has never been one to take the easy route, even in her acting career. She's made a habit of starring in revivals, taking on iconic roles fiercely connected to earlier performances by equally iconic actors. She got a Tony nomination for her Sophia in The Color Purple in 2016, standing on the shoulders of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Felicia P. Fields; and, most recently, she took on Berniece in The Piano Lesson, following a Tony-nominated originating performance from S. Epatha Merkerson and an Emmy-nominated screen turn from Alfre Woodard.
Maybe that's part of why Brooks is famous and celebrated. Time and time again, she's been able to magically breathe new life into the roles she plays, clearing out the venerated ghosts of a character the minute she opens her mouth. Rather than imitating or being intimidated by the brilliance that came before her, Brooks is adept at making her characters uniquely her own.
“It weighs on me. Knowing the caliber of work that they brought to the character, it challenges me to do the same thing,” says Brooks. “I think a lot about LaChanze and the responsibility that she had when I watched her in 2005 [in The Color Purple] as a 15 year-old. She had the responsibility to bring her best to the three hours that we watched her, because that affected my life completely. So when I was starring in the revival, I knew I couldn’t give anything less than my best every time I stepped on that stage. I knew the responsibility I had to some other young aspiring actor coming up for their journey.”
In a true full-circle moment, Brooks’ stage and screen careers have intertwined for her most high-profile upcoming project, reprising her stage performance as Sophia in the upcoming Color Purple movie-musical (we got a first look at Brooks in the role when the film's first trailer dropped just last week). Like much of Brooks’ work, the role was hard won. Even though she was nominated for a Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Award for her Broadway performance, the film team—led by director Blitz Bazawule and a group of producers including Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, Steven Spielberg, and Quincy Jones—still put Brooks through a long round of auditions.
“I told myself, ‘Danielle, do not let your ego get in the way of your blessing,’” she admits. “And I’m so very glad that never during that process—which was over eight months of waiting and auditioning and meetings and chemistry reads—did I get in my own way. And I think it will pay off. Some things are just way bigger than you, and I knew this moment was that. The minute I got that call from Oprah, it proved that point to me. Humility will always go way further than ego.”
The Color Purple follows Celie, a young Black woman living in rural Georgia at the turn of the century (American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, also a veteran of the stage musical, is playing the role in the upcoming film). At once both harrowing and hopeful and cathartic, the story sees Celie forced into childbirth and then forced into a marriage with an abusive man. She ultimately, though, finds inspiration and freedom in the community around her, particularly Sophia (Brooks' role) and Shug Avery (being played on screen by Taraji P. Henson).
Bazawule’s vision for the new screen version of Alice Walker’s story looks to be wholly different than any of its many past iterations. From what we know so far, the screen version will incorporate characters and storylines from Walker’s original novel, Spielberg’s 1985 screen version, and the Broadway musical, along with creating wholly new characters, including a mother for Celie (to be played by Aunjanue Ellis) that has been described as representing the “Great Ancestor.”
The entire project will certainly be different from the minimalist take that director John Doyle brought to his 2015 stage revival. “The beautiful part about being in John’s production was that he went old school,” says Brooks. “It’s that black-box-theatre type of performance, where you use what you have. Less is more—which I live for. But when you’re actually out on a plantation, it is different. When you are on a plantation and there are 30,000 trees that you look at and think about how many of your ancestors might have been hung on those trees, it changes the way you approach the work.”
And there’s another vital difference for Color Purple, at least for Brooks. Between starring in the 2015 Broadway production and filming this new movie, Brooks became a mother in real life, welcoming a baby girl with husband Dennis Gelin in 2019.
“I reflect a lot on the fact that Celie is forced to have children and Sophia is not. That gets lost in the narrative," Brooks shares. Sex and attractiveness are traumatic to Celie. Part of Sophia's function is to show that it doesn't have to be that way. “Especially being a curvy woman, I reflect on how Sophia is truly loved by this man—and she has five children. It’s important to me that people realize that just because you’re bigger does not mean that you’re not desirable, that you’re not loved.”
On a slightly more personal level, Brooks is also elated that her daughter will forever get to brag that her mom was Sophia. “The whole story is about sisterhood, watching these three women help each other navigate the trials of life. Now that I have a daughter, the story just resonates so much more.”
Sisterhood—camaraderie—is especially important to Brooks, and not just in terms of storytelling. Particularly as the theatre industry is in the thick of awards season, she says it’s a concept the theatre community should embrace more passionately. “There’s been a lot of ‘That’s your show. This is my show. Keep them separate,’ this season. I don’t agree,” Brooks says. “We should all be celebrated. There’s room for all of us. Yes, not everyone will get to say their speech June 11 [at this year’s Tony Awards], but I feel like we have to acknowledge what we’ve been able to accomplish, especially as Black people in this theatre business.”
That seems to be her defining goal, one that dictates everything she does on stage and off. Brooks is focused on making room for everybody through her work as a producer and a performer, to make sure that the next generation of theatre fans can be just as inspired and affected by the work of Brooks and her peers as she was by LaChanze in 2005.
And that might just mean being okay with someone singing along.