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Orange is the New Black Season 6: This is America

[EXCLUSIVE] Contributing Editor Dalia Awad heads to Berlin to meet the cast of OITNB ahead of the new season’s release, this July 27th. She speaks to stars Danielle Brooks, Jackie Cruz and Natasha Lyonne and finds out that this season tells us more about American society and politics than any other.

It’s always a bit weird when you meet someone famous, but meeting three of my favourite Orange is the New Black actresses in a fancy hotel in Berlin was a particularly surreal experience. Here were three women, so invested in their on-screen roles, so loudly loyal to the show and its social significance off the screen, that it’s almost impossible to not call them by their character names. It’s even stranger to see them in a five-star setting, polished and pretty, and not in orange overalls, sour-faced and fighting the man.

If you’re up-to-date with the show, you’ll know that season five left off at the bitter end of a riot, the fate of our favourite characters unknown as armed men storm Litchfield Prison, violently hauling the women onto busses, destroying the microcosm of a functioning society they managed to create while unsupervised. On an uncharacteristically hot and sunny day in Berlin, as gourmet sandwiches and lemon-infused water is served at the Kempinski, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief that Danielle Brooks (who plays Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson), Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols) and Jackie Cruz (Marisol ‘Flaca’ Gonzales) made it out of there alive.

Of course, their characters were not greeted with indulgent treats and green tea on tap as we enter season six. Instead, the women that we’ve come to know and love are thrown into maximum security, abused by the guards, separated from one another and awaiting their fate as the powers that decide, almost arbitrarily, who’s responsible for what in the rubble of the riot. OITNB has always been politically-charged, but season six has a particular importance in a time where justice, allegiance, identity and gender disparity dominate sociopolitical discourse in America and beyond.

If Trump was a reality TV star who became president, why is his voice more important than mine? We’re all fighting for all kinds of injustices happening across America. And we’re going to keep on fighting

“From day one, Flaca hasn’t been who she really is,” says Jackie Cruz. “She draws a teardrop with her eyeliner to show she’s hardcore but really, she’s soft and has a beautiful heart.” While the context of maximum security prison is one that, thankfully, most women can’t relate to, putting up walls and creating a hardened public persona is something women across the world do on a daily basis. “The best thing that Orange has given us is our voice because were speaking up for people who think they’re invisible. I was scared to use my voice before. But I thought, if Trump was a reality TV star who became president, why is his voice more important than mine? We’re all fighting for all kinds of injustices happening across America. And we’re going to keep on fighting. ” 

This season we see a lot more of Flaca and a depth of character that hasn’t come to light until now. Plucked out of her comfort zone and away from her BFF Martiza (played by Diane Guerrero), Flaca navigates a new, harsher environment alone, but manages to still bring comic relief to perhaps the most tense moments the inmates have seen. “I’m naturally silly, I love to make people laugh. The writers know me as a person. And slowly but surely, they begin to write a bit of us into the show. It’s cool to be the one who takes you away from something so serious [because] that’s real life. It happens. There’s something funny in every place you go to. Whether it’s prison, hospital or your death bed.”

We were hitting on the #MeToo movement before it was being spoken of. We spoke directly of the LGBT community, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration issues, prison reform and women’s rights.

Undoubtedly one of the best-loved characters, Taystee’s downfall in season six is perhaps the hardest to watch. The boisterous, warm and fun-loving inmate finds herself snatched away from her prison family and comes up against the injustices of the legal system battered, broken and completely alone. “It’s really hard to watch Taystee go through this, even as I play her!” says Danielle Brookes. “This is a woman who has been incarcerated but always found a way to fight against injustice. But now we’re dealing with someone who tried to climb that mountain and lost her footing. The fight is diminishing. She doesn’t have anybody to fight for and nor is anybody fighting for her. It’s been kind of devastating to watch. But as an actor it’s been exhilarating to show how many colours I can play.”

“Orange is one of those shows that’s unafraid, if not a trailblazer,” continues Brooks. “We were hitting on the #MeToo movement before it was being spoken of. We spoke directly of the LGBT community, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration issues, prison reform and women’s rights. We go there, even when no one else is talking about it.”

Season six delves deep into the justice system, questioning culpability, fairness and fidelity.  “I think we live [injustice] everyday living in America. Whether that targets me, or my friends or my family. I have a black father, a black brother, black uncles. The way in which American society works now, is that it’s ok to be loud and boisterous about how you negatively feel about other races. And it’s ok to shoot a black man and you’ll get off of it,” says Brookes. To the actress’s relief, however, the show has provided a platform for activism both off and on the screen. “Merging how I, Danielle, feel about the injustices we see all the time in America with Taystee’s journey, really served the character.”

The impact that the show has had on its cast and vice versa is abundantly clear.  “I remember when I first got the script [for Orange is the New Black], I was so confused that they wanted me to try out for Nicky because to me she was this waif-like hipster junkie. I was like oh, they mean someone [who looks] like Kate Moss. I’m giving off Bette Midler!” says Natasha Lyonne in her unmistakable husky voice. “Getting famous for your rawest work as opposed to the most shellacked, fakest version of yourself creates a healthy relationship with the world. The show is at the forefront of [women] understanding that there’s beauty to be had everywhere and we’re finally starting to see a reflection of ourselves [on screen].”

Stripped away too from her prison family, Lyonne’s character Nicky has to come to terms with new rules, menacing inmates, harsher treatment and an insecure fate. As we flashback to her childhood, season six gives viewers more of an insight on why Nicky is so dependent on her girl gang, especially mother-figure Red (played by Kate Mulgrew). “For Nicky, being a child has always been this unknowable struggle. What would have it been like to experience unconditional love? It’s so formative for an addict on so many levels, you know; this feeling like I don’t belong in the world and if I’m enough. Behind all of that is a lot of sadness and a very broken inner child. I certainly think that theme is why she’s so close to Red,” continues Lyonne.

Netflix has long been the most reactionary and responsive content platform, taking hot topics, controversial events and outspoken personalities in its stride. With American politics and social issues dominating headlines, you need to look no further than season six of Orange is the New Black and the brilliant performances by the award-winning cast to get a real insight on how the Land of the Free treats its most vulnerable, whether those are women, immigrants, people of colour, addicts or the elderly – and what better time to do that than now?

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