Breaking out, shining bright
‘Orange Is the New Black’ leaves legacy for women of color
NEW YORK — From corrupt, brutal overseers to the fraught world of inmate hierarchy to unlikely friendships and romances, “Orange Is the New Black” told deeply rich and complex stories about life for women behind bars that resonated far beyond prison walls.
While it was originally centered around the privileged white character of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), the supporting characters — some quirky, some volatile, some comic, some tragic — became the show’s breakout stars. The award-winning Netflix series also became a showcase for actresses of color, thanks to nuanced storylines with depth that have often proved elusive.
As the hit dramedy winds down with the seventh and final season on July 26, five of those actresses take a look back at the profound impact the series had on their lives.
Uzo Aduba (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren): A not-so-funny thing happened on her way to audition for a different part on the show: She was late.
She thought maybe the faux pas was the universe trying to tell her that acting wasn’t her destiny. Aduba, 38, had been trying professionally for about 10 years, with small victories.
That’s when the lifechanging phone call came. There was bad news: She didn’t get the part of track star-inmate Janae Watson. But there was also good: She was offered Crazy Eyes instead, though only for a couple of guest appearances. She wore the bantu knots that became the signature style of the character to the audition.
Thank goodness she didn’t listen to the universe. Aduba’s role was extended and she won two Emmys, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe.
Now, with her higher profile, she has a goal: “I am trying to tell the stories of the missing, the people and the voices that are missing in the tapestry.”
What’s next: Upcoming projects include the film “Beats” and the FX series “Mrs. America.”
Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset): The LGBTQ activist didn’t quit her day job at the drag spot Lucky Cheng’s in Manhattan until after the first season of “OINTB” wrapped. But it wasn’t long until she made history as the first trans person on the cover of Time magazine.
“I just cried,” she said. The magazine’s story accompanying the cover on the transgender tipping point had her describing her childhood in Mobile, Alabama, growing up bullied and harassed for presenting as feminine. She came out as trans years later while working in New York City, where she took up acting.
Thanks to “OINTB,” where her character rode out cycles of acceptance, hatred and violence, Cox has used her star platform to educate the world and push for just treatment of LGBTQ people everywhere.
“Seven years ago I turned 40 and I had not had the big breakthrough in my acting career that I had wanted. I was in tons of debt. I thought it was time for me to do something else,” she said.
Then she auditioned for “OINTB,” “and here we are.”
What’s next: She has several projects pending, including the film “Promise Young Woman.”
Danielle Brooks (Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson): As the brash Taystee, she has shown the way not just for other actors of color, but for women of size.
“Cornbread fed, baby, cornbread fed,” she said, laughing.
Brooks was well on her way doing theater when “OINTB” happened after she graduated with a bachelor’s from the Juilliard School.
Brooks is also a singer, earning a Tony nomination for Sofia (Oprah’s film part) in the 2015 Broadway production of “The Color Purple.” The 29-year-old Brooks was working as a waitress in New York City (“I was a horrible waitress”) when her agent got her an audition for “OINTB,” though initially only two episodes were promised — and she had to be topless in one scene.
“I was like, oh no. I’m from South Carolina. I grew up in a very religious household. I was nervous also about playing a stereotype, of the black woman who the world might consider sassy and loud and angry.”
She’s obviously glad she went.
“It has completely changed my life,” she said.
What’s next: She appears in the film “Clemency” and is working on an EP. She is also expecting her first child.
Samira Wiley (Poussey Washington): She was a bartender for 2 1⁄2 years after she, too, graduated Julliard and auditioned.
There were no promises that lesbian character Poussey would be a recurring role. After she got the job, she stayed at Fred’s Restaurant in Manhattan for the first couple of seasons.
“I didn’t want to be stupid about it and quit my job and then end up nowhere,” she said.
Like her character, Wiley, 32, is gay, but she was not publicly out in those early seasons. She credits Poussey with giving her the strength and confidence to come into her own, both as an actor and a gay black woman. Wiley appeared on the cover of Out magazine for its 20th anniversary to seal the deal.
What’s next: Wiley appears in the film “BIOS” and is working in a comedy, “Breaking News in Yuba County.”
Dascha Polanco (Dayanara “Daya” Diaz): She had dreamed of becoming an actor as a child but thought her weight might hold her back, so she put herself through Hunter College instead, going to school as a teen mother raising a young daughter.
The Dominican Republic-born Polanco went on to earn a bachelor’s in psychology and worked in a hospital as she studied to be a nurse (and eventually had a second child, a son). But over time, she decided to pursue acting.
She was cast in “OITNB” in 2012.
“I had three jobs at the time and I was also finishing my nursing clinicals,” she said.
“We are the reality,” she added. “Hollywood has been very exclusive in who they consider an actor, who they want to depict on screens.
“You come across this discrimination and this prejudice and you don’t realize how much they affect you. It’s learning how to embrace those scars and how we use it as foundation and not as identity.”
What’s next: She plays Cuca in the film version of the stage musical “In the Heights” and worked in the film “iGilbert.”
Uzo Aduba, from left, Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks and Dascha Polanco became breakout stars on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.”