If it weren’t for Greenville, the world would never have met Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, one of the most beloved characters on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” And that’s because Danielle Brooks, the Juilliard-trained, Screen Actors Guild-award-winning actor who played Taystee for seven seasons, spent her formative years right here in the Upstate.
“I lived in Greenville when I was four ’til I was 17,” Brooks says, “I went to Greenbrier and Hillcrest Middle and League Academy and Hillcrest High. I’ve been to a lot of different schools.”
And there’s a reason that Brooks went to all those different schools, up to and including the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.
“My mother was very adamant about finding the schools for me, and Greenville has been so good at arts education that there was always some kind of program for me to be a part of. I was in children’s theater, I saw shows at the Warehouse Theatre; the Governor’s School is where I learned what a monologue was and where I read my first August Wilson play. I know for sure that I would not have gotten into Juilliard without the Governor’s School. So I’m grateful for that, because where most kids get their discipline and dedication through sports, I was able to find that through the love of theater because of Greenville.”
That discipline led Brooks to fame and acclaim, not just on “Orange Is the New Black” but on the Broadway stage, where she played Sofia in the Grammy-winning musical version of “The Color Purple.”
It was during that Broadway run that one of Brooks’ co-stars gave her the kernel of inspiration that led to her new project: portraying gospel legend and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson in “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia,” a biopic that will premiere on the Lifetime network on April 3.
“Jennifer Hudson mentioned to me in passing that my voice sounded like Mahalia Jackson,” Brooks says. “When she said that it kind of sparked an idea in my head: the possibility of maybe playing her one day. That was in 2015, and so I just started doing a lot of research on her and started to see what other seeds I could plant, talking to my manager and agents and seeing if they knew anyone who had written scripts.”
Brooks was already familiar with Jackson as both a gospel music icon and a role model from her youth.
“I got to know who Mahalia Jackson was while attending Bethlehem Baptist Church, here in South Carolina. We would have posters of prominent black figures that had made contributions to America. And Mahalia Jackson was one of them; I just remember seeing someone that looked like me on a poster.”
Brooks both co-produced and sang Jackson’s songs for the film, and she says she wanted to paint as complete a picture of the iconic gospel singer as possible.
“This is a woman who was the first gospel singer to sing at Carnegie Hall,” she says. “She was the one who told Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’ So without her we wouldn’t have the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech as we know it today. I was so excited for people to learn about her.”
Some might find it intimidating to portray such a towering figure in Black history, but Brooks says she simply wants to make her home state proud.
“I think I was made to play Mahalia,” she says, “and I’m grateful to have come from such a great legacy of actors that have come out of South Carolina. I hope to continue to make Greenville proud and make South Carolina proud.”
There will be a special “drive-in” screening of “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Simpsonville on Friday, April 2 at 6:30 p.m. RSVP HERE.