Danielle Brooks was destined to play iconic gospel artist and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson. At Lifetime’s TCA presentation of Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia today, the Tony Award nominee and Grammy Award-winning actress said that the seed was planted years before the project came about.
Brooks recalled how two of her castmates from the Broadway production of The Color Purple piqued her interest in playing Mahalia Jackson.
“I had the privilege of working with Jennifer Hudson and I remember her coming to my dressing room, which she did every day before she got on stage, and we would chat and she said, ‘you should play Mahalia Jackson,’” recalled Brooks. “I didn’t think too hard about it but then when Jennifer Holliday came and stepped into her same shoe (Jennifer Holliday took over Jennifer Hudson’s role in The Color Purple revival), she said the same thing.”
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Brooks took it as a sign. “Maybe God is telling me I should really think about this character or this person to play this person,” she shared during the Q&A session. “So they planted that seed and I immediately started grabbing books and telling my team at the time that I was interested in seeing where this could go.”
Still, it would be years down the line before Brooks came across that right project so she leaned on her faith. “I know for a fact that Mahalia stood firm on her faith with God. And I also had to do the same thing through my journey. I think that’s why I was so connected to who she was because I also grew up in the church and I also always had to lean on God when I felt like I couldn’t do things.”
“This was definitely one of those moments,” she added. “I didn’t know how the story was going to get told, where the story was going to get told but 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.
Of course, Brooks ultimately landed the opportunity when she was approached by Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, who had previously worked with Brooks on the stage production of Much Ado About Nothing.
“I’ve never worked with an actress so clear, so beautiful, so funny. And I knew I wanted to work with her again,” Leon extolled.
The director was also preemptively preparing to tackle Jackson’s story. During the early part of the pandemic, he said, “out of my own nervousness and fear about what was going to happen next, I said I’m going to wake up every day and in the spirit of my mother, I’m going to listen to Mahalia Jackson every day for the first hour.”
He did so for seven weeks before getting a call from executive producers Robin Roberts and Linda Berman.
“I feel that I’ve done a lot of things. I want a Tony award. I’ve been nominated for Emmys. But this I feel is destined because I wanted to tell this story because I wanted to just speak to Americans during our time of COVID, our time of pandemic, our time of racial challenges in our country. Through the lens of Mahalia Jackson, we get to tell a story that connects to all of us.”
The pic hails from Roberts’ Rock’n Robin Productions, which launched in 2014. Roberts signed a four-movie deal with Lifetime back in 2019 to produce scripted and documentary projects, which will all fall under the Robin Roberts Presents banner.
“Look, I love saying ‘good morning, America,” said the longtime morning talk show host. “But I needed to stretch another creative muscle. And that’s what I’m able to do under the Robin Roberts presents banner. These are concepts that are important to me, not that the content that I do on Good Morning, America or ABC News is not important, but it doesn’t always speak to me.”
She continued, “it’s a very challenging time right now with the pandemic ongoing and just finding ways to connect with people, finding ways for people to understand that we have more in common than not. And so it’s just really challenging. When there’s so much uncertainty, that means there are endless possibilities and the Robin Roberts presents banner, I believe, presents us so many different possibilities.”
Slated to premiere on April 3 on Lifetime, a day before the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia biopic is the story of the New Orleans born crooner who began singing at an early age and went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in U.S. history, melding her music with the civil rights movement. Her recording of the song “Move on Up a Little Higher” sold millions of copies, skyrocketing her to international fame and gave her the opportunity to perform at diverse settings including in front of a racially integrated audience at the prestigious Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. An active supporter of 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.
Broadway stars Jason Dirden, Olivia Washington, Rob Demery, and Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango co-star opposite Brooks.
Dirden stars as Russell Roberts, the dashing, music-loving Reverend who falls for Mahalia when they first meet in the late 1940s while Kalukango takes on the role of Mildred, Mahalia’s talented and opinionated, long-time pianist. Washington portrays Estelle, a piano teacher Mahalia meets at church who goes on to become her life-long friend, and Demery stars as the influential civil rights leader.