After seven seasons on Orange Is the New Black, Danielle Brooks is spending part of her summer doing Shakespeare in the Park, primarily because she never thought she’d get asked to do it. “I had an offer to do a movie I was excited about, but then I got this offer, a direct offer, to play Beatrice,” Brooks said, discussing her role as one of the two sparring lovers in the Public Theater’s forthcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing. “I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that.” Beatrice has more often been played by thin white women (Emma Thompson on film, Lily Rabe recently in the park), and Brooks would be the first black Beatrice she had ever seen onstage, as well as the first black Beatrice to play the Delacorte Theater. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me,” Brooks said, “so that was a no-brainer.”
Brooks trained at Juilliard and had a few smaller roles in Shakespeare productions there, but this is her first professional Shakespeare. She’s joined by an all-black cast, including fellow Juilliard grad Grantham Coleman as Benedick, and led by director Kenny Leon. Vulture caught up with Brooks to talk about this production’s contemporary take on the material, how she’s preparing to master Beatrice’s dialogue, and what other roles she’d like to play soon.
I know that this is a version of Much Ado About Nothing set roughly in the present with an all-black cast. Tell me about how you’re all approaching the material.
It is an all-black cast, but I didn’t know that coming into it! I was just excited to play Beatrice. [Laughs.] It’s a modern version; it is set in 2020. It is set in Georgia. There’s a possibility that we can have a huge sign in front of our lot that says Stacey Abrams.
That vibe really aligns in a way, because this play is about wit, and being from the South, people from the South are really witty and they know how to throw shade. These characters know how to do that with their language. There are bits or war and bits of religion, and all of those things are in the fabric that makes up the South. There is going to be dancing, and singing, and just a beautiful array of what makes us us, what makes black people beautiful beings. Let’s not forget that this country was built on the backs of slaves, of black people. I think that we found a creative way of celebrating that this is our country when we’re in the Trump era. When we’re in an era where people don’t want to be us.
Even though Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, it takes place with all the men coming back from war. There’s a lot of darkness to it, which tracks with that setting.
I think it’s a dramedy. Beatrice says, “Kill Claudio.” There is war, and it talks about war. It is definitely a dramedy to me.
Grantham Coleman, your Benedick, was also at Juilliard. Did you know each other then?
We definitely knew each other in college. He was one year underneath me. I was in group 40 and he was in group 41. There’s another young guy, Jeremie Harris, who was in Grantham’s class. He is playing Claudio, the other male lead. It is just a big reunion, and it is really awesome working with Grantham. I think he is a phenomenal actor, he brings such a freshness to this character, and he works hard. I just think it is really cool to work with people who already speak a similar language.
This is your first time doing Shakespeare professionally, what’s it like to go into that?
I think Shakespeare — if people took some time and got out of this boring-ass, like 1600s, Elizabethan bullshit and modernized it, it’s so relatable. It’s exciting to get to take this language and embody it the way Danielle sees it, of course under the leadership of Kenny. To me, when I remember being in school, and we would do scenes, I remember there was one character where I would have to cross-dress because, you know, Shakespeare loves to cross-dress. I remember taking a new spin on it. I made my character a pimp-daddy type, like cross-dressing woman, and it was just so much fun to have a new version of what I have always been seeing, or people always tend to turn to.
Did you get to do much Shakespeare in school besides that?
I remember being in school, too, and not getting the opportunity to get the lead; I didn’t get the opportunity. I was in Lady Macbeth, and I played Witch No. 1, and then we did Merchant of Venice, and I don’t even remember the character I played in that. I like had two lines in that. It wasn’t because I wasn’t capable; I think it was just a matter of, “Where does she fit in this world we’re trying to create.” With Kenny and the Delacorte giving me this opportunity to show what I can do with being who I am, I am so grateful. I hope that people gravitate toward this new way of looking at the language and still see how heightened it can be. We are definitely adding a lot of color to it [laughs] and not just black.
Do you have a favorite of Beatrice’s quips, or a line that you’ve had fun figuring out how to deliver?
There are a lot of lines. This girl is almost too witty for me, she is making me stay in my no-fear Shakespeare, and I am on it with this language. But there is one line, and it goes, “I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come.” That’s just all of the language right there. You have to be locked in, you have to listen to what you’re saying, or you’re not going to make any sense. I am sure there will be days like that, but I am just going to ride the wave anyway and enjoy being in the park, with these animals, and with 1,800 people and just enjoy the experience. [Laughs.] I think I’m most nervous about the raccoons!
You finished shooting Orange Is the New Black earlier this year. What was that like wrapping up what was so much of your life over the last seven years?
Basically almost all of my 20s was spent with these women, with this cast, crew, with this character. So we spent more time together than we do in high school or college. It was challenging; I think it wasn’t as bad because I knew it was coming, and I allowed myself to mourn through the character. I think I allowed myself to mourn through the six to seven months that we shot, versus, Okay, it’s the end; this is the last day and now I’m a hot mess. I think I allowed myself that journey.
Now, it’s exciting. I get to put a new language in my mouth and explore new characters and show the world what I’m capable of doing, and what I’ve studied so long to do. To get to build this unique and hopefully phenomenal résumé. That’s what I’m hoping for, and to be remembered as one of the greatest actresses to come in this generation. That’s what I’m hoping for. To get to spread my wings, and to show that is exciting.
Are there other genres or types of characters you want to play next?
I think it’s about what I’m leaving and what I’m creating to further American theater or Hollywood. What am I bringing to it that is what we haven’t seen, what we haven’t experienced? I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film. I look forward to playing royalty. What was that movie that I loved so much this year, it was with Emma Stone? The Favorite! I want to get an opportunity to be in movies like that. Hopefully someone will get inspired after seeing this Shakespeare and write something.