It would be a few short years before Brooks, best known for playing sassy solar flare of joy Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, would graduate and start studying at Julliard, where she would meet her roommate and eventual best friend, Joaquina Kalukango. The two would spend hours belting the score to The Color Purple together in their dorm room.
And it would be almost exactly 10, still comparatively short, years before Brooks would make her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, earning a Tony nomination for her performance as steely, resilient Sofia, the human grenade of power and heart who belts the defiant Act One barn-burner “Hell No.” And she’s co-starring alongside that same college duet partner (Kalukango plays Nettie in the musical revival), to boot.
“It blows my mind, really, how full circle this whole thing has been,” Brooks tells The Daily Beast over lunch in Brooklyn, staring wistfully at Fort Greene Park out the window. The actress recently moved to the neighborhood but, because of her schedule performing The Color Purple and shooting the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black simultaneously—four hours of sleep had to literally be scheduled into her day—she hasn’t had a chance to properly explore it.
The “full circle” nature of Brooks’s Broadway journey is so multitudinous that it’s really more like a curly-cue spiral: From being that 15-year-old girl in awe at her first Broadway show, to booking her first Broadway role in that same show at age 25. From singing the score with Kalukango in their Julliard dorm room to starring together in the show’s first Broadway revival. They even snagged a Julliard practice room—Room 301—to help each other rehearse their auditions.
When Brooks found out that she won a Tony nomination for her performance in the show (over her Oscar-winning co-star, Jennifer Hudson, who she calls her “big sister”), she immediately Facetimed Kalukango, who was at the Today show to perform The Color Purple’s title song with the cast and put the entire ensemble in the screen to congratulate her.
“I was crying so hard,” Brooks says. She screenshotted the Facetime conversation and posted in on her Instagram. “They told me, ‘You should not put that picture up!’ But I keep it real so I didn’t care.”
The nomination is well-earned. Sofia is a juicy role: Oprah Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar for portraying her in the 1985 film adaptation and actress Felicia P. Fields was also nominated for a Tony for the musical’s 2005 premiere. Now 26, Brooks is much younger than both actresses were when they took on the role (Winfrey was 31 and Fields was in her 40s), but much closer to the age Sofia is at the start of Alice Walker’s decades-spanning Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
In contrast to the story’s protagonist Celie (played by the earth-shattering Cynthia Erivo in the revival), Sofia refuses to be controlled by her husband, Harpo—a defiant nature that bridges the gap between inspirational and heartbreaking when Sofia is brutally attacked to within an inch of her life when she stands up to a white woman who wants to hire her as a maid.
Director John Doyle’s Color Purple revival strips the showy musical to nothing but its roots: spirituality and strength. There’s hardly a set to speak of, only two costume changes, and some props are even mimed. That restraint serves as the pulpit for a theatrical hallelujah, a springboard for powerhouse performances like the one Brooks delivers, steamrolling the stage with her “Hell No” entrance and reconstructing it again with a complicated portrait of survival.
Making the feat more impressive is the grueling 4 a.m. to midnight schedule that Brooks worked during the fall of 2015 in order to keep her job at Orange Is the New Black while rehearsing and opening The Color Purple. (She’ll be starting the same schedule again when OITNB goes into production on season five next month.)
Brooks calls the schedule “an actor’s rush.” A 4 a.m. wake-up call would get her to hair and makeup on the OITNB set by 5 a.m. When shooting on her scenes would wrap seven hours later, she’d jump into a van to get to Color Purple rehearsal by 1:30 p.m. The show begins at 8 and lasts until 11, after which she’d sign autographs outside the stage door. If she was lucky, she’d be home for a midnight bedtime.
The New York Post detailed the brutal schedule in a piece that called Brooks “the hardest working woman in show business,” which, after another late night followed by an early morning of press, Brooks sighs, “you know what, today I take that title.”
But does she ever have a chance to pause and reflect on all of her success these past months?
“Every night in The Color Purple we get to say that, ‘God is inside you and everyone else,’” Brooks says. “I just love that moment, because sometimes you just need to be reminded of that in this world we live in, that good or bad God is inside us all. And at the end of the day it’s also reminding me that you gotta take in each moment.”
Brooks laughs when she recalls her audition for Orange Is the New Black. She was not wearing pants. She really felt like the muumuu she had brought was right for the part so, in the room, she took off her pants and changed right there. “I wish they had a clip of that,” she says. “I want to see it again.”
Her outfit for her Color Purple audition was much more traditional—a simple black dress, she says. She performed some sides and part of “Hell No” for director John Doyle. Chatting afterwards, she asked him what he was looking for. He said someone with comedic timing and depth. “Then I told him, ‘Well you can stop looking!’” Brooks laughs.
Her callback came on a day she was set to fly to Los Angeles to do press for OITNB. She remembers deciding that she was going to perform “Hell No” right in his face, slamming her fist on the table in front of him and belting it so close he could feel her breath. Exhilarated, she immediately ran to Harlem to feast on much-needed comfort food: Mac and cheese, fried whiting, and some greens.
Brooks’s voice starts cracking when she recounts getting the phone call that she was cast. She ran outside the Harlem restaurant and called her mom, she said, and was on the verge of a breakdown when a British fan approached and asked for a photo. Tears streaming down her face, Brooks told her, “First, I want you to know that I’m crying tears of joy. I need you to know that. Second of all, I can’t right now.”
She hopped into a taxi, got on the plane to L.A. and immediately started reading The Color Purple.
At this point, Brooks sets down the cracker she was spreading her artichoke dip on. She is full-on crying.
“It’s nice to reflect because things happen so fast I don’t get a moment to really reflect on those once-in-a-lifetime things,” she says. “So that’s why it really does mean so much. Because it was the first show I saw. Just think about a little teenage girl, a black girl, seeing people that looked like her, on Broadway.”
She takes a moment to compose herself, but can’t. “And then to do it. And then to get a nomination. I’m just grateful. And then to also still keep your job. I still get to work on Orange.” She starts to dry her tears. “There’s not a lot of time to sit over artichoke dip,” she says. “You made me cry. I fucking hate you.” Then a pause: “Don’t write that.”
To lighten things up, we switch topics, to Orange Is the New Black. When you’re in the day-to-day grind of the show, you can often lose sight of the impact that it has, Brooks says. But working on The Color Purple has refocused the power of the series for her.
“There are moments where I’ll have girls come up to me and say, ‘You’ve made me realize I don’t have to change anything about myself to do what I want to do,’” she says.
Interactions like tend to that sear themselves into Brooks’s psyche. It’s the exact feeling she had when she booked Taystee “in a way that was so true to me: with no makeup, no weaves or wigs, no tight clothes or anything like that. Just someone saying, ‘You’re good enough the way you are.’”
From the first episode, when Taystee teased new inmate Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) for having “those TV titties,” the character was a fan favorite.
“There’s just a lightness about her that was unexpected in a world that is so dark,” she says. “You expect everyone to be depressed. She’s the opposite. She’s looking for a family, looking for a joke. Like, wait, people have positive thoughts when they’re in jail? They smile when they’re there? It’s something people have never seen.”
The trailer for season four teases that Taystee will get a job in the prison as a receptionist for the warden. It’s another step forward in the character’s internal struggle between her urge to resign to her lot in life—even wanting it, because it’s easier to settle—but also giving into the feeling that she could be more, that she has potential.
“I can relate to that, so much,” Brooks says. “I remember in season one Taystee says, ‘No one will take me seriously.’ Earlier in my career it felt that way. I knew I had the potential but no one was seeing it.”
They certainly are now, eight times a week.
Even Brooks didn’t know what she was capable of, juggling The Color Purple and OITNB, even working on the latter the day of her Broadway opening night. In a way, she says, that made it more special. The OITNB cast all attended the performance after work. Her entire family was there. By the time Brooks started singing the title song in the show’s finale, she was bawling. She couldn’t make it through.
She remembers after the curtain call, before she even got to her dressing room, stopping just off stage to take a breath, and cry. When she got to her dressing room, her body was shaking. She was hyperventilating—good hyperventilating, she says—and needed to take deep breaths.
“There’s no feeling in the world like living your dream,” she says. “But these past few weeks I found there’s a better feeling, and it’s when you go past what you dreamed.” Her eyes well up and she’s so overcome with emotion that she starts tapping her fist on the table in front of her. “Ever dreamed. That’s dope, man.”