Danielle Brooks’ Journey from Color Purple Audience Member to Tony Nominee

Tony Awards   Diva Talk: Danielle Brooks’ Journey from Color Purple Audience Member to Purple Tony Nominee
The Orange Is the New Black star earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut.
HR - Danielle Brooks.jpg
Danielle Brooks

Danielle Brooks, who is currently making her Broadway debut in the critically acclaimed revival of The Color Purple, says she was unable to sleep the night before Tony nominations were announced May 3. The stellar singing actress needn’t have worried; Brooks earned a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for her emotional performance as the no-nonsense Sofia in the John Doyle-directed production, a stripped-down staging that received four Tony nominations, including one for Best Revival of a Musical.

Reached by phone the morning of the Tony nominations, Brooks told this writer, “I had called my dad, and my dad was really excited about this year’s Tony’s. He’s been tracking the whole thing, and so he was watching it live. He was making me nervous, so I had to get off the phone with him, and I decided to watch my castmates on the Today show sing ‘The Color Purple.‘”

“I had put my phone on silent, but I had it face up,” Brooks added. “And, as I was watching them sing the number, all of a sudden I just got a flood of notifications, text message after text message after call. And that’s when I felt in my heart: ‘I think this is it. I think I might have gotten a nomination.’ My manager, my publicist—they called me and told me the good news, and then I called my father and my mom together. My mother’s actually teaching right now, so she put her students online to say congratulations, so her whole class of elementary school students said, ’Congratulations, Danielle!’ My dad’s now booking his flight for the Tony’s!”

Brooks’ best friend, Joaquina Kalukango, is also a member of the Purple company; Kalukango plays Nettie, the Africa-bound sister of the musical’s central character, Celie, Tony nominee Cynthia Erivo. “Joaquina FaceTimes me,” Brooks explains, “and so I got to see the entire cast, and they all got to say congratulations to me, and I got to say congratulations to them, and so it’s just been a big cryfest this morning. I’ve just been so excited and so grateful. For my first Broadway show, to be nominated, I’m so, so humbled that people thought enough of my performance that it was worthy of a nomination. I’m so grateful and so excited about this whole month and the whole process, and I’m so happy that Orange is the New Black was so generous with me, allowing me to be a part of this show.”

It should be noted that the original production of The Color Purple, which ran at the Broadway Theatre from 2005-08, was the first Main Stem show that Brooks saw. “My 15-year-old self is just like, ‘Girl, you did that! I can’t believe you did that!’ I’m just really above cloud nine—whatever that is, I’m sitting right above that right now. I’m really grateful.”

Danielle Brooks in <i>The Color Purple</i>
Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple Matthew Murphy

When asked the challenges of playing Sofia, who is steadfast in her beliefs, Brooks says, “There are so many challenges, but more than challenges, it’s so invigorating to play this role. Just to get to connect with the audience and allow people to really find their personal freedom has been what’s kept me going because the challenging part comes with the story. Every night we’re telling this story about abuse and about falling down… about physical abuse, spiritual abuse, picking yourself back up. And so that’s where the challenge lies in committing yourself to that more than 100 percent every day and sometimes twice a day.

“What gets us over that and what allows us to do it or allows me to do it is the audience,” Brooks continues. “Every night you see people holding hands with whomever they’re sitting beside … people standing up in the middle like they’re in church—crying, people kissing their mothers or their significant others and holding them throughout the show, and it reminds you that people are really being healed, and that’s what the theatre is about, what it’s supposed to do. And we get to do that every night.”

The stage and screen star, who can be seen as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, says the audience reaction is also a reminder of “why you do what you do.”

“I’m so grateful that I’m in a position now where it’s not about the finances because a lot of times when you’re in theatre, it is like just trying to get a job to pay your rent. You’ll take anything,” the gifted Brooks says. “But now I’m in a position that I can do things that are really moving us forward as a world—even with Orange is the New Black, that’s something that’s moving us forward in our conversations about being incarcerated, in conversations about gender and all of that stuff. Now I get to do that on the stage.… This is my playground, theatre is where I started. It’s what I studied for. And to now do that in the medium I love so much in a story that really is the reason why I’m on the stage... It's so electrifying, and now that I get to share that with the world, it’s incredible, man. Incredible.”

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly Their Favorite Things.

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