When Danielle Brooks first joined Orange Is the New Black, her character Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson was only supposed to appear for two episodes, but she was such a hit that Taystee became a recurring character. So it was no surprise that this unbelievably talented Juilliard grad made her Broadway debut recently (alongside Jennifer Hudson) as Sofia in The Color Purple, which audiences have absolutely loved. We talked with Ms. Brooks about racism today, performing for Oprah and what she’s discovered in playing Taystee…
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
It would be a day in which I could eat the greasiest, tasty, salty and sweet meal delivered directly from heaven, and not gain one ugly pound. Unfortunately, since that’s not an option in this world, I’d start out with a very lovely omelette loaded with veggies, turkey bacon, and feta cheese with a side of breakfast potatoes and berries. For lunch, I’d have NY’s best tuna melt from Blue Dog Kitchen, and I’d end the night with a home-cooked meal from the best chef I know, my Mother.
What’s been your most memorable moment on The Color Purple set so far?
I’ve been fortunate to have so many incredible moments with The Color Purple thus far. Jenji Kohan and the producers came to support me, and all my OITNB girls came opening night. We performed in front of Oprah…But getting to meet Aretha Franklin – and having her tell me she truly enjoyed my performance – and then receiving a huge bouquet of flowers from her the next day was super cool – a highlight of my life.
What have you discovered in playing your character? How is it relevant to what’s going on today?
I’ve discovered that being a black woman has not gotten any easier over the years. There’s a scene in the second act where Sofia gets beat up, and she’s the only one in the play that directly gets beat up by society. In the book, Sofia says how she wants to commit suicide. In that moment I think about Sandra Bland, Karyn Washington, Tamir Rice’s Mother, Mike Brown’s mother, Kindra Chapman…the list goes on. This is a topic I still find relevant for women of color today. We’re taught to be strong, be rocks, and pick ourselves back up. You can endure anything, but the strongest people need the most lifting when they fall.
If you could ask Oprah one question about playing Sofia, what would it be?
After carrying the weight of Sofia in a given shooting day, how did you come back down when the director called cut and it was time to go home?
The best part of being in OITNB…
Getting to work with amazing women everyday, in front of the camera and behind the camera. They are incredible. We have truly built a lovely family that will forever be apart of my life.
Your biggest discovery in playing Taystee…
How important it is for us to support our children, especially ones without families. I think as a society we have to step up and really fill in the gaps where some fall short. I’m glad I get to tell this story for the ones who have been through this, and the ones who might not have to go through it because of this story.
Anything you’re hoping will happen to Taystee in the future of the show? Why?
I really like where Taystee is headed; the writers always come up with better ideas about her journey than I do, so I’ll just keep enjoying the ride.
What are the best and worst foods/drinks for your singing voice?
Water, tea, water, tea. I have Throat Coat with Manuka Honey everyday. Pineapple juice is also really good. The worst foods are probably nuts and chocolate. The nut pieces always get trapped in your throat. And popcorn. I thought I’d eat popcorn right before a show once…really bad idea. I felt like a cat with a hairball caught in its throat.
What’s your pre and post show routine?
Pre show, I listen to gospel music and color in my meditation coloring book. I go down five minutes before curtain and pray with the cast, then Jennifer Hudson comes in my room and we girl chat for about five minutes, and then I get dressed.
Post show, I get out of my clothes as quickly as I can, say goodbye to Jennifer and Cynthia, greet fans, and take my butt home.
What are some food spots in Times Square that aren’t so square?
Most of my favorite spots aren’t in Times Square but a bit more downtown. I love this place called 5th and Mad. You might catch me after a late show running in there for a midnight snack. They have the best Buffalo wings in NYC. No lie. I’ll stop by to pick up some wings and kale, and might have a cocktail if I’m feeling up to it.
As a Juilliard graduate, what would your advice be to young actors?
If you really want it, come correct. I feel like we know in our hearts as artists if we’ve put our absolute best foot forward – if we’ve worked as hard as we could. I think a lot of people want to be actors/ actresses but don’t put in the work that is required. If you know you want to be in musicals, but you’re a mediocre dancer, why not find a friend that can help you? Don’t give yourself the excuse of, ‘Oh well I don’t have the money.’ Get on YouTube. Watch videos. There are always ways to make your dreams become a reality. And if you have absolutely done everything in your power, you can stand proud no matter the result.
The one person you’d want to come see The Color Purple and come backstage after the show…
Jamie Foxx and Jill Scott. I think they are both artistic geniuses.
What are your favorite spots to eat in New York City?
67 Orange Street in Harlem. It’s a really cool, intimate speakeasy with great food. Cafeteria is just a cool young vibe. I think everyone knows they have some of the best Mac and Cheese in the city and their desserts are so delicious.
If you could host a dinner party with any five people living or dead, who would be there? What would you cook?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because he’s the one person I’ve always wanted to meet; Kat Williams, because he would have me laughing all night; my grandmother, because I miss her presence in this world; my future husband, because he should just be there so I can meet him, and Jimmy Fallon, because he’s one of the coolest dudes on the planet.
*Danielle Brooks, photographed at Joe Allen in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann.