Break­ing out, shining bright

‘Or­ange Is the New Black’ leaves legacy for women of color

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Leanne Italie

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.”

CHRISTO­PHER SMITH, CHRIS PIZELLO/INVISION

Uzo Aduba, from left, Samira Wi­ley, Lav­erne Cox, Danielle Brooks and Dascha Polanco be­came break­out stars on Net­flix’s “Or­ange Is the New Black.”

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