If you’re a fan of Danielle Brooks from Orange is the New Black, you might be surprised to discover that she has the singing chops to take on the role of Mahalia Jackson in the new Lifetime biopic Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, but if you caught her on Broadway in The Color Purple, it would come as no surprise.
Brooks made her Broadway debut in the 2015 revival of The Color Purple as Sofia, working with both Jennifer Hudson and Jenifer Holliday in the musical, both of who saw the potential in her to take on the role as the gospel great.
Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holliday Suggested Brooks Play Mahalia
“I remember Jennifer [Hudson] coming to my dressing room, which she did every day before she got on stage, and we would chat and she would say, ‘You should play Mahalia Jackson,’” Brooks shared in a Zoom conference call for the Lifetime movie. “And I said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t think too hard about it. But then when Jennifer Holliday came and stepped into the same shoes, she said the same thing. And I was like, ‘What? Maybe this is a sign. Maybe God is telling me maybe I should really think about this person, playing this person, Mahalia Jackson.’ And so, they planted that seed.”
Brooks took that seed and ran with it. She began reading books about the famed gospel singer, she informed her team to be on the lookout for any Mahalia project in the works, and she put her trust in God to deliver.
“I’m grateful that I got to do The Color Purple because that gave the world the knowledge that I sing, which a lot of people didn’t know,” Brooks says. “And when I did receive a Grammy for The Color Purple, it gave me the encouragement that I could do it, because I always looked at myself as an actor first.”
Brooks Put Her Trust in God
Six years later, the call came to star in Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, and it all came together.
“I know for a fact that Mahalia stood firm on her faith with God,” Brooks says. “I’ve also had to do the same thing through my journey. I think that’s why I was so connected to who she was because I also grew up in the church, and I also had to lean on God when I felt like I couldn’t do things, and this was definitely one of those moments. One of those moments where I didn’t know how the story was going to get told, or where the story was going to get told, but I had to trust that what was told to me in my spirit, what was given to me was that I was supposed to play Mahalia Jackson, and I had to trust that.”
Brooks got the call from Kenny Leon asking her to be a part of the Lifetime biopic, and it just felt right. She knew Leon as the two had had a great working experience on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing for the Public Theater in the Park.
“I knew I was going to be in good hands,” Brooks adds. “And then when it came down to stepping in her shoes, I had to grab onto faith because I had to sing all these songs, but it’s something that I’ve been studying. I’ve been following her, studying her, watching every YouTube, reading everything that I could possibly read, just getting my hands on pictures. I’ve just been soaking her up for years. And so, when I actually started, you just have to let go and trust the universe, let the world do its thing and get out of the way.”
The biopic introduces Mahalia singing at an early age, then moves on to the story of how she became one of the most revered gospel figures in U.S. history, melding her music with the civil rights movement, befriending Martin Luther King Jr. and becoming an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
Brooks First Discovered Mahalia in Church
Brooks recalls her personal Mahalia introduction was actually seeing a poster of her, rather than hearing her sing.
“I grew up in a small church in Simpsonville, South Carolina,” she says. “I was in bible study and there were posters on the wall of Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson and a few other Black heroes. But she stood out to me because of her skin, because of her round face, and her smile. In that moment, I saw myself.”
It was a little later, but still through the church, when Brooks was singing songs like Precious Lord that she eventually put two and two together and realized that these were songs that originated with Mahalia. Still, it is the memory of the poster that sticks with her.
“The poster was my first connection to her, just seeing her face,” she continues. “And that’s why I always talk about how important it is for representation, because who’s to say if I didn’t see that poster as a little girl in my church, that I would have even made the connection and said, ‘Maybe I can be like her?’”
Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia premieres on Saturday, April 3 at 8 p.m. ET/7 c on Lifetime.