NEW YORK (AP) — From corrupt, brutal overseers to the fraught world of inmate hierarchy to unlikely friendships and romances, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) told deeply rich and complex stories about life for women behind bars that resonated far beyond prison walls.
While it was originally centred 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 colour, thanks to nuanced story lines with depth that have often proved elusive.
It’s no surprise that some of them went on to become the show’s biggest draws.
Uzo Aduba won the dramedy’s only acting Emmys, while Emmy-nominee Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco all gave masterful performances that lifted their careers far beyond life in Litchfield federal penitentiary.
As the hit dramedy winds down with the seventh and final season on July 26, those actresses take a look back at the profound impact the series had on their lives.
ADUBA (Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren)
A not-so-funny thing happened to Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba 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, but she quit after her tardiness, thinking maybe a law career was the way to go as her parents, of Nigerian descent, preferred.
That’s when the life-changing 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.
Like Crazy Eyes sometimes does, she let the muses rule.
“My phone wasn’t ringing, with regards to film and television anyway, before our show came out,” she told The Associated Press. “It just felt surreal, I think, for a lot of us to even be having this sort of experience.”
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.”
For so many in the cast, the Medfield, Massachusetts-raised Aduba said, “We had been living on the Island of Misfit Toys and being made to feel as though there was no place for us when the truth of the matter is space just needed to be made.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Upcoming projects include the film Beats and the FX series Mrs America.
BROOKS (Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson)
As the brash Taystee, Brooks showed the way not just for other actors of colour, but for women of size.
“Cornbread fed, baby, cornbread fed,” she laughed.
The Augusta, Georgia-born Brooks was well on her way doing theatre when Orange 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 Colour Purple. She dropped a music video in February for Black History Month featuring herself all glammed up and wet in a bathtub singing Black Woman, which includes the lyrics, “The world tells me there is space for me, if I cinch it up and I sew it in, the world tells me it’ll all be mine, with some lashes on and some lighter eyes.”
The song, Brooks told the AP, was “my way of healing myself” while encouraging others to accept who they are.
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 Orange, though initially only two episodes were promised.
“I almost said no to it because I didn’t get to read the script and when I saw the scene that I was going to be in, I was like, oh no. I’m from South Carolina. I was nervous also about playing a stereotype, of the black woman who the world might consider sassy and loud and angry. To put that on TV, I was not sure about it.”
She’s obviously glad she did.
“It has completely changed my life,” Brooks said. She believes it also opened doors for non-traditional shows featuring full casts of colour on TV.
“How much has the world changed, how much has Hollywood changed where you can have shows like Pose, you can have Insecure and Atlanta and a plethora of other shows out there where the lead can look different from what we’ve seen before?”
WHAT’S NEXT: She appears in the film Clemency and is working on an EP. She is also expecting her first child.
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.
After minor roles in two TV series, she was cast in OITNB in 2012.
“I had three jobs at the time and I was also finishing my nursing clinicals,” she told the AP of life before Orange.
“We are the reality.” she added. “Hollywood has been very exclusive in who they consider an actor, who they want to depict on screens.”
Polanco, who is also a songwriter, now values her versatility as an actor who doesn’t fit the Hollywood mold, though the early years were nerve-wracking.