Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.
If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.
On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.
Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.
But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.
Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.
Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.
And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.
She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”
In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?
“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”
Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.
And then she changed.
Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.
The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.
And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.
The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.
From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.
And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.
Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.
But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.
Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.
The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.
Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.
During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.
In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”
She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”
By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.
Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.
This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.
“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.
“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”
I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.
Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.
Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.