Danielle Brooks was born in Augusta in Georgia, USA. She attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, then the Juilliard School in New York. Her work in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black has been recognised with three Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, and in 2014, Brooks won the Young Hollywood Breakthrough Actress Award. Her performance in The Color Purple on Broadway saw her nominated for a 2016 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and earned her a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Q. What really matters to you?
What matters to me most is telling stories that move us forward as a society – telling stories that help people better understand one another.
I was in my first church play when I was six years old, but, when you’re that young, you don’t understand how you’re affecting others. Everyone kept telling my mother that I was good, so from that moment on she found all of these different programmes for me to attend. I was transferred to arts school in middle school, then again in high school; in high school, I discovered my love for theatre, and I came to understand its power to change people’s lives – it definitely changed mine.
In my senior year at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities – I had just been accepted to Juilliard, so the school was always making me perform monologues when donors visited – I performed an August Wilson monologue from The Piano Lesson for about twenty women, who all happened to be white. I was terrified. But all these women were able to relate to Berniece’s story, the need to convince her brother of the mistake he had made by selling their piano, an heirloom that had so much family history in it. The women all told me how they’d been moved, and that was the moment when I realised the power of art – how transformative it is. Everyone can find a way to relate to it. That’s when I decided I would use my gift to help others become more free. In return, it does the same thing for me. This is why I feel so strongly that we have to pour our resources into arts education; it allows people to experience the arts and, through them, to feel seen and heard. Because it’s important to give voices to people who feel like they don’t have one.
In this world, most of us are operating in our own little circles, but, when I had the chance to tell Berniece’s story, I realised the potential for arts to help us relate to each other. There is so much hate and opposition in the world – I’m right, you’re wrong – so what we really need is to be able to relate to each other’s stories. I feel Orange Is the New Black is so powerful because all of the characters are written off as criminals – as the lowest of the low – but you come to understand how each of them landed in prison. You see that most of them were operating out of love: stealing for their children, selling drugs to support their husbands or whatever else it might be. They were trying to do more, be better and to provide. When you take a step back and appreciate that these are people’s mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers, you start to break down the judgement about who they are.
I do think that there are micro-aggressions black actors experience – I experienced them myself when I first started on Orange Is the New Black. Some people deem my character, Taystee, ghetto or unkempt, because she is incarcerated and says whatever she wants. And they have reflected that on me. I’ve stepped into interviews where the first questions are, ‘Are you trained? Where did they find you?’ Yes, I’m trained! I spent four years at a conservatory studying this craft. Yet, I don’t necessarily hear those questions when my white contemporaries are being interviewed about their characters. I was at a fancy event recently, and a very distinguished black woman, who is in the business, told me she’d only realised my background after she recognised me in The Color Purple. She said, ‘I thought they found you on the street or something.’ I felt that was disrespectful to me as a human being, because she didn’t have the imagination to believe that I could be greater than just the character I was playing.
People can be so close-minded in their beliefs, but I feel acting creates room for people to change – to see things differently as they get to know a character and then the person behind it. My mother is a minister and my father is a deacon, so I grew up in the church, and my family can be very homophobic. But, because they’ve engaged with the work of my colleagues Laverne Cox and Samira Wiley – and then with the women themselves – they’re able to look at life a little differently than they had been taught to. I think that’s a beautiful thing. What I’ve learned from my mother and her journey with faith is that it’s okay to leave room for more love.
Q. What brings you happiness?
Doing what I love. When I’m centred and have inner peace, that brings me happiness. There are so many distractions that can throw you off balance, but, when I can take a moment to live outside of my insecurities and be fully in the moment, I find a true appreciation for life, health and the beautiful people around me.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Self-hate. I know I have a lot more to learn, but, in the twenty-seven years that I’ve been on this earth, a core lesson has been being able to identify self-hate. When you don’t love yourself enough, or you don’t feel like you have a reason to live, that’s misery. Not all, but a lot of, self-hate we cause each other. In some way, our self-hate is all connected: whether it’s somebody who’s been abandoned by their mother or somebody who can’t provide for her child. We affect one another; the minute I run into somebody, their energy moves my energy, and vice versa.
So, I think it would help if we all took a second to focus on loving ourselves. If I’m not operating out of a place of love for myself, how am I supposed to spread love? A drug addict who spends time with drug addicts is most likely going to do drugs, whereas, if they’re going to AA meetings and hanging around people who are clean, that’s probably the direction their life will take. I feel it’s the same when it comes to loving one’s self: we have to surround ourselves with the same vibrations.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I would change how we view money; greed is a powerful demon and it runs the world. I think the way we view money is ugly.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Manifestation. We have the power to manifest whatever we want, if we believe.
200 Women Who Will Change The Way You See The World, edited by Ruth Hobday, Geoff Blackwell, Marianne Lassandro and Sharon Gelman (Chronicle Books, 31 October 2017, £35.)