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‘Mahalia': How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Danielle Brooks Landed the Role of Mahalia Jackson

”My first connection to her was just seeing her face,“ Brooks says

Danielle Brooks takes on a new role in Lifetime’s biopic “Mahalia,” produced by Robin Roberts, and the former “Orange is the New Black” star said she felt there were multiple “signs” leading her to accepting the role as Mahalia Jackson, one of gospel’s greatest voices.

Brooks said that she was first introduced to the idea of playing Jackson while working on the musical “The Color Purple” during its 2016 Broadway run that landed Brooks a Tony Award nomination.  “The Color Purple” famously featured Brooks, “Aretha” star Cynthia Erivo, and Jennifer Hudson (who will also play Aretha Franklin in an upcoming biopic called “Respect”).

“I had the privilege of working with Jennifer Hudson, and I remember her coming to my dressing room, which she did every day, and she would say, ‘You should play Mahalia Jackson,'” Brooks said. “I said, ‘OK,’ but I didn’t think too hard about it. But then when (“Dreamgirls” star) Jennifer Holliday came and she said the same thing, I was like, ‘Maybe this is a sign.'”

Brooks told Forbes that once she was offered the role in “Mahalia,” she studied everything she could to make sure she nailed Jackson’s booming contralto voice. “I immediately started grabbing books and telling my team at the time that I was interested in seeing where this could go,” Brooks said. “I’ve been following her, studying her, watching every YouTube video, reading everything that I could possibly read, just getting my hands on pictures. Pictures tell so many stories. I’ve just been soaking her up for years.”

Brooks said that although people pitched “Mahalia” to her almost six years ago, she wasn’t sure she would be cast in the role. A connection to director Kenny Leon helped — the two met when Brooks was doing Shakespeare plays for New York City’s Public Theater in the Park and Leon was directing.

“I just didn’t know how it was going to come together,” Brooks admitted. “By the grace of God, Kenny Leon called me and he said, ‘You know what, I want you to do this.’ I had worked with Kenny in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, for the Public Theater in the Park, and I had such a great experience working with him on that, so, I knew that I was going to be in good hands.”

Mahalia Jackson wasn’t a new name to Brooks; she said she’d been aware of the singer since she was a child growing up in the South. “I grew up in a small church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, and I was in bible study and there were posters on the wall of Martin Luther King and Mahalia Jackson and a few other black heroes,” Brooks said. “(Mahalia) stood out to me because of her skin, because of her round face and her smile. So, I feel like that my first connection to her was just seeing her face.

“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, ‘You know, maybe I can be like her,’ or maybe, I would have just never known who she was,” Brooks added.

“Mahalia” airs on Lifetime Saturday, April 3 at 8 p.m. ET.