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Although Danielle Brooks has become most known for her role as Taystee, on the television show “Orange Is the New Black,” she is a creation of the stage. Our generation’s yen for Black-theatre revivalism is rooted in her gift for externalized performance: she is the kind of actor who interprets the monologue as she delivers it. As Berniece in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” and as Sofia in John Doyle’s 2015 revival of “The Color Purple” musical on Broadway, Brooks has brought the ache of life to her characters, her voice piercing the artifice around her. For her, the act of inhabiting these women was personal. She recalled to me, recently, being fifteen years old, watching the performer LaChanze play Sofia in the original musical staging, and bursting into tears. Brooks won a Grammy and earned a Tony nomination for her own performance as Sofia, and she will take up the role again, in a film adaptation of the musical, which will première on Christmas.
Hadn’t “The Color Purple” already been wrung dry? It has been more than four decades since Alice Walker published her epistolary novel—a long view of the oppression visited on Celie Harris, a young Black girl in turn-of-the-century Georgia—and, in the intervening years, Walker’s story has been made into a film, a musical, a revived musical, and now a film again. A few weeks ago, the latest film’s director, Blitz Bazawule, admitted in the Los Angeles Times that he initially “didn’t see why it needed to be remade.” “The Color Purple” of the twenty-twenties is a sweet, smoothed show: the hubris of the original film, directed by Steven Spielberg and derived from his belief that Hollywood can supplant history, is not Bazawule’s thing. Humility and redemption are. The Ghanaian director has gone for a high-style reverie, creating set pieces sprung from the imagination of Celie, played as a child by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and as a woman by Fantasia Barrino, who is reprising her Broadway role. (Spielberg, as well as Quincy Jones, who produced the score for the 1985 film, and Oprah Winfrey, who played Sofia in that movie, serve as executive producers.) As Sofia, Brooks turns the sun-bleached world upside down. Barrelling into the lives of Celie, Mister (Colman Domingo), and Harpo (Corey Hawkins), Sofia embodies self-determination, an idea that Celie, passive and somnambulant, has not yet encountered. It is with a totalizing passion that Brooks plays her Sofia, the link between the actor and the character having been strengthened over so many years of knowing. Even when the film’s gloss aroused doubt in me, I could not help but let Brooks bowl me over.
I met Brooks at a hotel in Columbus Circle earlier this month, about two hours after she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. She wore a purple blouse and magenta knit trousers and an expression of cowed gratitude on her face. She is God-fearing, but she is also an inquirer, and she could not understand how this fortune had been bestowed on her, the woman who was still the girl in the mezzanine. We talked about the state of Black theatre, the purpose of adaptation, and inner monologues. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I’ve been thinking about certain resonances and symmetries in your career. You have been in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple” musical, and now the film, an adaptation of the musical. I read in an interview that your father took you to see the original staging when you were a teen-ager. What was that like?
It’s crazy that we’re here, looking at this beautiful skyline on Fifty-sixth Street. I believe the theatre I witnessed “The Color Purple” in when I was fifteen was on Fifty-first or Fifty-second Street. My emotions are really high right now because of that, as well as Juilliard, on Sixty-sixth Street, which is where I attended college.
The beginning of the journey starts with me winning an internship in New York at fifteen. I’m from a small town, Simpsonville, South Carolina. I attended the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, in Greenville, where I lived on campus. It was like a mini-Juilliard. You had to audition. They accepted only a few. I graduated in a class of ninety-five students. I was the only Black girl in my drama class. And so winning this internship was a huge deal. I got to take one parent—I took my father. We had a great time in New York, learning about this place, and doing the ferries and all the things. But one of the things my dad did was take me to my first Broadway show. At the time, the only two Black shows were “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King.” And so he chose “The Color Purple,” and thank God he did, because this little curly-haired, plump-faced young woman was in heaven. It starts off with two Black girls in a tree. And I was, like, What? This is what theatre can be?
I ended up going to Juilliard two years later. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, because my parents unfortunately didn’t save money for me to go there. It was because of my godmother, who unfortunately passed away the same year I witnessed “The Color Purple.” She left twenty thousand dollars in her will for me to go to college. During that time, I met the incredible Corey Hawkins.
Who plays Harpo—
In this rendition of “The Color Purple,” the movie. We were really getting it out the muck, as he says. We were young, broke, sometimes-having-to-jump-the-turnstile-type kids, sneaking into Broadway theatres. Then I graduated, started auditioning for a lot of plays, and ended up booking “Orange Is the New Black.” My heart has always been in the theatre, and so it was really a pivot—one I was excited about, because it came with the check—but it was a pivot for me to join the television world. When I was doing that, I remember seeing a commercial about them doing the revival of “The Color Purple” musical, and they were announcing Cynthia Erivo [as Celie] and Jennifer Hudson [as Shug Avery]. And I sat on my couch in Fort Greene, and I was, like, Oh, man, I can’t wait to see who they cast as Sofia. That possibility never crossed my mind, because I was working. How in the hell are they going to make this work for me to do eight shows a week? But somehow, by the grace of God, after all the no’s on Off Broadway and Broadway, the first Broadway show I starred in was “The Color Purple.” It’s so crazy, the full-circle moments with this story.
I’m also having a full-circle moment sitting here with you, because I saw you in the musical. And what I was amazed by, besides song and sound, was the set. Can you speak to how the story expands or contracts when it is onstage versus on a film set?
It’s night and day in a lot of ways. Our stage adaptation, directed by John Doyle in 2015, was stripped down. It was a bare stage, just wood, as you saw—just chairs and our imagination. There was no juke joint. There was no dinner table. There were no babies. I think about how we had to use bedsheets and fold them up to represent babies. I didn’t actually have a white mob coming after me. The audience—you all had to go on that journey of imagination with me.
What I’ve realized is that theatre can be stifling in a way. You lock in that show. After the rehearsal, after the previews, the show must remain the same. You can’t go and discover something that you found with another actor, because now that means the lighting changes, the actors change. That’s the beauty of getting to do it in film, because I can go to the director and say, “Hey, Blitz, I know you want me to go through this door, but Sofia would bust the door open with her foot. Can I do that?” Actually being in Georgia, feeling the hot Georgian sun, being on plantations, seeing slave houses behind us, actually holding a ten-pound baby, opens up the world.
“The Color Purple” is the epic of our times, for Black women. I got my copy of “The Color Purple” from my mother, who had previously shared it with my sister. What’s interesting is that as you age with the story, you may feel your identification shift. Celie comes from an environment shaped by abuse. Sofia comes in, the idea of being repressed having never occurred to her, and rocks Celie’s perception of self so much so that Celie betrays her. When Sofia falls in love, she is able to get Harpo to not be like the men in his life. What’s your relationship to the character now, from being in the revival in the mid-twenty-tens to being a mother, married?
My confidence at the time was not as high as it is now. It was very interesting playing Sofia, because when I became Tony-nominated I had impostor syndrome. How could this beautiful thing be happening to me? Which is super odd, because I did do the work. It’s crazy how our brains work, you know? But it was singing “Hell No!” every night that pulled me out of that fear.
And what do you find “Hell No!” to be about?
“Hell No!” for Sofia is about saying hell no to the abuse. Saying hell no to gender norms, and to the oppressor, and really finding your power. For me, every night it was about saying hell no to this notion that I’m not enough, that I’m not worthy. That’s what I was fighting every day on that stage. And now, playing her, and having become a mother of a beautiful four-year-old girl named Freeya, and then becoming a wife, learning what commitment means, is so crucial to the story when it comes to Sofia and Harpo. I really do believe all of the things that she talks about and how she moves, and I understand that strength. She’s a radical woman. Like, these are women coming straight off of slavery. And for her to really try to break the cycles of abuse in her marriage—this is a woman who had six children, when Black people at the time had kids being killed, thrown into the seas, or snatched away from them, as we see with Celie’s character. This is a woman who says, “I’m going to have my own job.” There are pieces I’ve definitely taken with me, playing Sofia.
Recently, you and your castmates were doing a talk. Fantasia, who is also reprising her role in the movie, described playing Celie as a cross, one that she hasn’t always been able to carry. It’s so heavy, the burden. What was the space like, given that the actors had either performed in the musical or had a really deep emotional relationship to the text?
Spiritual. From Day One. The first day, we shot the last scene, which is us around the oak tree, which Miss Oprah calls the Angel Oak Tree. We’re in Savannah, Georgia. There are truly slave houses right next to us. You can see them.
The most haunted city in America.
I live there now, and I grew up in South Carolina, but I was born there, so I get it. You can’t help but think of the brothers and sisters who might have been lynched on those trees. There’s a spirit, and Taraji [P. Henson, who plays Shug Avery] said so beautifully, “Do you feel that? If only that tree could talk.”
We all just really held one another’s hands during this process. Speaking of Fantasia and her journey with this, we made sure we were uplifting our lead. I felt very empowered having Corey there, too, someone who had known me since I was seventeen. He’s been through all of the no’s. I’ve known Colman Domingo for a long time. Sorry, I’m getting emotional, being that today I can call myself a Golden Globe nominee. I think about running into Colman on Forty-second Street after witnessing him in “Passing Strange.” At the time, I was taking so many odd jobs, trying to pay my rent, and he said—after I expressed that I hope there’s a place for me in this industry, but I really don’t see it—he encouraged me and said, “No, you gotta keep going. I don’t know you that well, but I can tell there is something in you.” I’m just in awe of how this journey with “The Color Purple” has come full circle with me. This is still, in my eleven-odd years of being in this industry, my first studio film. I’ve done a ton of independent films, but this is my first studio film. It’s a cutthroat business. This acting thing I just deemed as fun, my therapy, my happy place—there’s a business attached to it, and it’s not always fair, and it’s not always kind, and it’s definitely not for the weak.
Something I’ve been thinking about in relation to you and Corey is the parallel line in your careers, how the revival has played into the roles you’ve been able to inhabit. I saw you in “The Color Purple” on Broadway, and I also saw Corey in “Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks’s work, revived last year.
He slayed that thing.
He really, really did. When an August Wilson work, or when a work like “Topdog/Underdog,” is brought back to the fore, how does this offer a platform for different generations to do different interpretations of these texts?
I’ve been describing “The Color Purple” as a cinematic heirloom. It’s that thing you want to hold on to, that you want to take care of. It comes from those who came before you—Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, Margaret Avery, Danny Glover. It’s also something you want to pass on to make sure the next generation knows the importance of what that was. I feel that way about August Wilson, about Suzan-Lori Parks.
That same thing I was able to grab and hold with me on my journey to becoming an actress that I saw in “The Color Purple,” watching LaChanze and Felicia P. Fields and Elisabeth Withers do that, is what we now have to offer to the next generation. I’m excited about the fact that they get to witness Corey Hawkins, Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II], myself, John David Washington.
Did you or any of the cast members develop relationships with performers who had done the roles before?
I’ve definitely formed a bond with LaChanze, who was also a producer on Corey’s “Topdog/Underdog.” Every time I see her, I try to hold it together, but I’m always on the verge of tears. I formed an organization with two Black women called Black Women on Broadway, to give Black actors a place to know that they’re not alone. We honor three women each year during Tony season. And we get these pins made by a wonderful company called Coloring Pins, owned by Black woman. The first year was Audra McDonald. The second was LaChanze. Then, also, I’m forming this beautiful relationship with Miss Oprah Winfrey now. I was very shy when she was a producer on the first revival, because she’s Oprah. I didn’t ask her for any advice. I just stayed away. But this time around, once she called me on that Zoom to personally pass the baton of playing Sofia on to me, I felt such an openness. A lot of people are, like, “How do you have any pressure? You played Sofia for a year.” I mean, Miss Oprah was there almost every day watching the most iconic scenes of “You told Harpo to beat me,” there for the dinner scenes, there for the first time I was shooting. There was a lot of pressure. Huge shoes to fill, but I really feel she allowed me to be the cobbler of my own shoe.
Sofia, as we know, as you said, is not an easy character to play. There were moments when we had to shoot over and over and over again. You think you’ve shed that scene, and then they come back two days later, wanting you to shoot again—this is the dinner scene. I’m, like, “I’ll do it one more time.” And then they come back a third time. That time, I actually said no.
I said no. I know you got it on tape. It’s solid. I’m not doing it again. The dinner scene is almost the eleventh-hour number. Everyone is coming into their own. Sofia, her spirit is pretty much dying. She’s in jail for so many years because she refused to work for Miss Millie and talked back. The world has now taken her song and killed her spirit. And she finds strength again in that moment.
I saw the film a few months ago, at a screening made up only of journalists, who don’t like to appear emotional while viewing a film. But for me the experience was completely emotional. I kept thinking of twinning. Colman Domingo playing Mister makes you think of Danny Glover. I’m thinking of you inheriting Oprah. Fantasia inheriting Whoopi. The contingent of mainstream Black performers is forcibly small for reasons we understand. But it does create this inheritance.
This symmetry that happens. This lineage that you start to find yourself in.
You could do worse, for sure. What were you thinking, during the SAG-AFTRA strike? You were muzzled during those months, having just completed your first feature film, not knowing if you were going to be able to promote it.
It was hard—not only to promote it but to get to work! I hadn’t worked since “The Piano Lesson,” which was in January. The thing about theatre is that it does not pay nearly what actors should be getting paid for the work they do. So coming off of that and into a strike was devastating. I had to learn, during that time, to trust the Creator. Whatever is meant to be, will be. I’m always asking God for clarity. Can you tell me why you are doing some of the things you are doing? There’s always a reason. And I was out there. When I came to New York, I was on the picket lines, marching. Getting this contract as close to right as we could is super important. I’m so glad that we are here, that I am getting to talk to you about something that is so near and dear to my heart, and that has changed the trajectory of my castmates’ lives, too. What is happening in Fantasia’s world, Colman’s. You know, Corey Hawkins, what he has done with Harpo has shown us way more than what the first version did. It’s healing, so many men with their trauma and showing them that they can break those generational curses. You don’t always get that with movies. Sometimes movies shouldn’t be getting made—they’re just not bringing any depth to the world.
We really do get more of Harpo’s development as a character. The film is addressing masculinity in a way that, frankly, isn’t addressed as explicitly in Spielberg’s film. Not to give too much credence to those old accusations of Alice Walker and Black feminists being traitorous man-haters, but there is a more visible effort, here, to put forth a more complicated vision of men. Was that something that came up in discussion with the director?
One hundred per cent. That’s why storytelling coming from the point of view of the people who have lived it is so crucial. The fact that this was directed by a Black man has opened up parts of this story we didn’t know existed. The perspective of Steven Spielberg is so much different from the perspective of Blitz. We’re seeing what Harpo’s fighting against, his relationship with his father. Mister can’t fight against what he was taught by his father. We get this generational lineage of trauma that we didn’t see before that was built out of conversations with Blitz in the rehearsal process.
I love one thing that Blitz did. And at first I was, like, What is he doing? There’s this famous line when Shug comes in for the first time to Mister and Celie’s house, and she sees Celie, and she says, “You sho’ is ugly.” That is an iconic line. How are you going to get rid of that? And then I realized after hearing Blitz talk about the reasoning that, if he would have kept it in, he’d be perpetuating this thing where Black women put Black women down. Fantasia had said before she had such a hard time playing this character in the past because of continuously being put down in that way.
It’s the imperfection of “The Color Purple,” the book, that makes it so alive. Other artists come in and draw out aspects of the book to the fore, and other aspects are scuttled away. Shug Avery, for example, symbolizes the glamour of Black culture at the turn of the twentieth century—jazz, fashion, sex. I’ve thought of Celie and Shug’s erotic moment, in the past, as not quite based in love. More so curiosity. That moment in the film, the montage, puts Celie and Shug on the same playing field. They’re dancing. They’re imagining together. I appreciated it, as you’d be surprised how people tend to forget that this is a queer story.
For the Black community to see two women loving on each other is so crucial. A lot of it comes from generational behaviors of self-hate, homosexuality being deemed as horrible, which I do not believe at all. It’s not the exploration of two women kissing, touching each other in the bathtub. It’s about the love. Teaching each other how to love each other, how to love themselves. They do kiss for way longer in our version than the last.
When they did the 1985 version, how much pushback they got from organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. “Oh, my gosh, this is how you’re representing us.” Look how far we’ve come. ♦