Danielle Brooks Takes the Lead in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Stephanie Diani
Danielle Brooks

The 'Orange Is the New Black' star says a fond goodbye to Taystee while stepping into a leading-lady role for the first time in the modern-dress Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kenny Leon.

The first time Danielle Brooks auditioned for Shakespeare in the Park, she didn't even get a callback. The Orange Is the New Black star had just graduated from Juilliard, where she had played small roles in Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, but she never had the chance to work on the Bard professionally.

"When we were in classes studying Shakespeare, I remember feeling like, damn, I really get this language and if I was only given the opportunity to put myself unapologetically into this work, how much fun it would be," Brooks said.

Now, she's getting that chance as Beatrice, the quick-witted heroine in Much Ado About Nothing, which is playing at the Delacorte Theater as part of the Public Theater's summer Shakespeare in the Park season. Directed by Kenny Leon, the all-black production is set in modern-day Georgia on the eve of the 2020 elections, complete with Stacey Abrams campaign signs onstage.

Brooks drew inspiration from the women she grew up with in South Carolina. She’s enjoying bringing her own personality to the part and making the role and the story feel contemporary.  

"I'm having a great time telling this story," she said. "To be the love interest and not have to comment about the fact that I'm black or the fact that I'm a size 16. I don't have to talk about that. I can just be. It's a new experience for me."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Brooks about what makes Shakespeare personal, the final season of Orange Is the New Black, and her future plans.

How did you get cast in this production? Were you looking to do theater after Orange wrapped filming?

I was not looking to do theater at the time. I was actually slated to do a movie right after shooting the final season of Orange Is the New Black. And I was really excited about it. Then I got an offer from my agent saying Kenny Leon wants to offer you Beatrice. I remember looking at it like, what are they serious? Me? Beatrice? That option for me had never come around. I'm always playing the best friend or the auntie type or the person that comes in really quickly and makes everybody laugh and then is out. I had been dreaming of a moment to lead a cast. It felt like I was going to get to have my cake and eat it too because the movie I had turned down was a rom-com. But I wasn't playing the lead. I was playing the best friend of the lead. I was like, I get to be the lead and it's a romantic comedy? And it's theater? This was that reminder to stay focused on the work and it will come when it’s time.

This production is set in modern-day Georgia. Can you talk about bringing the story into the present day?

It's so liberating because we get to own who we are as people instead of trying to fit into the generic Elizabethan-type feel that people are used to seeing in Shakespeare. The language really lends itself to this very modern version. The play talks about politics. The guys are coming back from war. That's the first thing that we're dealing with. I definitely feel like, in America, we're dealing with our own type of war. The fact that Stacey Abrams was running and in her state they were stopping people from voting, that's a war in itself. Getting to comment on it without hitting it over the head, people know what you're speaking of. And people are into it.

I think we actually stand more together than we think we do as a society. That's what artistry does anyway. It's our responsibility to comment on the world we live in. If you're doing it right, that will happen. Ninety-five percent of the projects that I'm attaching myself to are doing that — whether that's Orange Is the New Black, The Color Purple, Shakespeare in the Park, Clemency that's coming out in November/December with Chinonye Chukwu, who directed it and won the top honors at Sundance this year. Being a part of that film that is commenting on the prison system and how we handle the death penalty. It's very important that whatever I do — even if it's a comedy, even it feels dated — being able to get to comment on the world we live in is a part of the activism. 

The moment after the wedding in Much Ado, when Hero has been wronged and Beatrice has that great speech about what manhood has become feels very relevant, especially in the Time's Up era.

I feel it on a personal level every night. That was probably the most challenging part, doing the wedding scene and watching Claudio push Hero down every night and yet all these men onstage aren't doing anything to help her. We have to honor the language but I think there's such beauty in what you can find if you actually honor what is being written. Even though that part felt a little hard to find because I feel like we are in an era where these men would stand up for her, at the same time we're not. We're in an era where women can't even choose what they want to do with their own bodies. Abortion centers are being shut down. And these men are controlling what we can do with our own bodies. And we birthed these motherfuckers. 

How do you make it personal?

My best friend just lost her father, and I think of her as my Hero in this play, my cousin in this play. I just lost a friend who was murdered, unfortunately. I think of him. When I say, "Oh how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!" How could someone be so hateful to such a good person? That's what I meant by the personal. I think that's the core of it. She's speaking for those women when men don't step up to the plate. 

How do you prepare before the show?

I've been really settled this year in getting into theater. Believe it or not, The Color Purple was my first professional gig in New York City and so this one is my second theater job in New York. This time it's been a lot more calm. Maybe it's because we're out in nature and that makes me feel like I'm at home. I always listen to gospel while I put on my makeup and then we get ready for the races. We go backstage and I get in a circle with a few of my castmates. We pray. We have a little chant we've made up. And then I get on the balcony, I take a breath. My stage manager gives me the notes with his pitch pipe, the first note I have to sing. And then I take a breath and I walk onstage.

Do you enjoy getting to sing in the show?

It actually kind of calms me down. I think it calms the audience's brain down, too. People, when they come to Shakespeare, they immediately feel like the first 10 minutes I'm going to have to figure out where we are, what we're doing, who's who, and also dissect what this language is. It feels like stepping into a calculus class of language, and I think sometimes people get a little flustered and feel like it's going to take them a little while to understand it. I think starting with that song [the Marvin Gaye classic "What's Going On"] relaxes people.

The final season of Orange Is the New Black is coming to Netflix in July. What were those final days on set like?

My last scene was shot by myself on a phone call, and I was actually the last person to shoot the entire season, so all the writers were there. Most of the cast came back to take this final group photo together with the cast and the crew and the writers and our producers, everybody. I sang a song that I wrote for the cast. I wrote it for my heart. That was kind of my closure. I'm really close to the cast, and this whole experience has changed my life. I felt like putting that into a song. And I did and I shared it with them and I could barely get through it and sing it. And then Jenji [Kohan] and Tara [Herrmann] asked if they could use it for the final episode. So there's a possibility that that song will make it into the final episode, which I thought was very generous and thoughtful of them to do that for me.

At this point, it's run its course and now we all get to fly. Orange really gave a lot of us our first set of wings in this industry. If it wasn't for Orange, who's to say I would have gotten the opportunity to do some of the amazing things I've been a part of. So to now get to show the world there's more to Danielle Brooks, I'm so excited for the next chapter. I just continue to pray for longevity in this business and just to continue to be that person for the next generation. Be that person that they want to see, that represents them. That's important to me. I want to make sure what I align myself with is really breaking the mold and opening a whole new world to the next generation of little chocolate size-16 girls out there. That's really what I hope.