(KGET) — Danielle Brooks didn’t think much about it when her Broadway co-star in “The Color Purple,” Jennifer Hudson, suggested Brooks should play legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson if a film was made on her life. Then Jennifer Holliday made the same casting suggestion.
It was at that point that Brooks began to think that God might be trying to tell her something. No matter where the message was coming from, it took six years but Brooks finally got the call to portray Jackson in the Lifetime movie “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.”
The made-for-cable production – set to premiere at 8 p.m. April 3 on the cable channel – looks at how the New Orleans-born Jackson became one of the most revered gospel figures in U.S. history. She was known for her powerful singing and her commitment to the civil rights movement. Jackson sang at numerous rallies, including the March on Washington in 1963 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in hopes that her music would encourage and inspire racial equality.
The fact Brooks felt there was some divine intervention fits with the casting because she – just like Jackson – has a deep faith in God.
“I think that’s why I was so connected to who she was because I also grew up in the church. I also had to lean on God when I felt like I couldn’t do things. And this was definitely one of those moments. 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 says. “Then when it came down to stepping in her shoes, I had to grab onto faith because I was like I have 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. Pictures tell so many stories.”
Brooks started an in-depth study of Jackson a half-dozen years ago but the famed gospel singer has been a part of her life since she was a child living in Simpsonville, SC. The wall of the room where she attending Bible study featured posters of Martin Luther King and Mahalia Jackson.
Once Brooks joined the church choir, she began singing many of Jackson’s songs. Brooks finally made a connection between the music and the images in the posters.
“And as time goes on, I began to realize, oh, okay. Putting two and two together, these songs that we were singing in church were originated from Mahalia Jackson,” Brooks says. “And so, I feel like that was my first connection to her – just seeing her face.
“And that’s why I always like to talk about how important it is for representation. 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 or maybe, just, I would have just never known who she was. So, I’m grateful that I was connected to her and discovered her through church.”
The decision by Roberts to produce the Jackson biopic also started when she was young with a poster of the gospel singer and her family constantly playing Jackson’s music. Roberts got chills when Brooks was mentioned to play Jackson because she knew no one else would be a better fit to play the role.
Brooks also got her first taste of acting through church. The Juilliard graduate is best known for playing Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” but before that series, Brooks earned high praise for her work on Broadway including getting a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in the 2015 Broadway production of “The Color Purple.”
‘Mahalia” was directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon and that might explain the impressive list of Broadway stars in the film. Joining Brooks are Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”), Jason Dirden (“Fences”), Olivia Washington (“The Butler”) and Rob Demery (“Lovecraft Country”). It.
Brooks felt comfortable with Leon as her director because they had previously worked together on a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” for the Public Theater in the Park. At the same time, Leon got to see the kind of talent Brooks brings to a role. He knew she would be the person to help him accomplish an important goal. Leon is convinced he was destined to direct the film dealing with Jackson life at this time.
“I wanted it to speak to Americans during our time of COVID, our time of pandemic, our time of racial challenges in our country,” Leon says. “And through the lens of Mahalia Jackson, we get to tell a story that connects to all of us. What happens when we’re not connected to each other? What happens when we lose our spirituality?”