It took two “Dreamgirls” to convince Danielle Brooks she should play gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
“The buzz got sparked through ‘The Color Purple,’” Brooks says during a Zoom interview. While starring in the Tony-winning revival, Jennifer Hudson started the Mahalia drumbeat. And then, when Jennifer Holliday replaced Hudson, she echoed Hudson’s sentiments.
“And I was like, ‘What?’” Brooks says. “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe God is telling me I should really think about this character.”
The former “Orange Is the New Black” star started researching Jackson and thought, maybe, it was possible.
Brooks stars as the Grammy-winning legend in “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” on Lifetime.
“I’m glad I got to do ‘The Color Purple’ because that gave the world the knowledge that I sing,” she says. “And it kind of gave me the encouragement when I did receive a Grammy (for the cast album). It gave me the encouragement that I could do it.”
While Brooks’ character — Sofia, the role Oprah Winfrey played in the film — didn’t get the soaring anthems “Mahalia” does, she did have solo numbers that made her stand out.
Cast as Beatrice in a Public Theater park production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Brooks was asked during rehearsals if she could sing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
“She did it without even thinking about it,” says director Kenny Leon. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my god. That woman has everything.’ I knew from the first day of rehearsal that I wanted to work with her again.”
Fast forward to “Mahalia.” Leon was hired to direct; Brooks was his first choice to play the singer.
In the screen biography, Brooks sings an album’s worth of Jackson songs. She also gets to dig into the musical legend’s roller coaster love life and her supportive friendship with Martin Luther King Jr.
At the March on Washington, Jackson performed “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned,” then urged her friend to speak from the heart: “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” she said. King set his notes aside and delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The moment is captured in the film and shows how important she was to his legacy.
The film covers 40 years of Jackson’s life. “You could write 300 different stories of Mahalia Jackson and still not exhaust the possibilities,” Leon says. “But it explores her struggle to just be the best person that she could be on the planet, and that’s something all of us can learn from.”
Leon thought Brooks was right for the role because “she goes for the truth every time. I knew the Mahalia Jackson story we were going to tell needed to (be played) by an actor first — an actor who could sing.”
Robin Roberts, who produced the Lifetime film, wanted the Jackson story to connect with people. “It’s a very challenging time right now with the pandemic ongoing,” she says. The goal for her “presents” banner: “Finding ways for people to understand we have more in common than not.”
Brooks says it’s an honor to play “an ordinary woman who could do extraordinary things. We have to continue to remind people of that. People really don’t know Mahalia Jackson, and they should. They really, really should.”
What “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” • When 7 p.m. April 3 • Where Lifetime • More info mylifetime.com/mahalia