The week I spoke with actor Adrienne C. Moore was a tough one, not long after the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers. Yet in her role as “Black Cindy” Hayes in Orange Is the New Black, Moore’s creative life has become increasingly intimate with explorations of systemic racism and the corruption knitted into the United States justice system, making our conversation, however difficult, particularly resonant. Season 4 of Orange enjoins its viewers to bear witness to an institution indulging both the perverse thrill of punishment and cruel indifference—and the brutal consequences when these two threads entangle. As one of Poussey Washington’s closest friends at Litchfield, Cindy—renamed Tova after her conversion to Judaism—suffers unspeakable loss while she continues to grapple with the complexities of her own incarceration narrative.
When we spoke, Moore had recently finished Phyllida Lloyd’s all-woman production of Taming of the Shrew and a voiceover campaign for the new 20 dollar bill featuring Harriet Tubman. And, after a six month hiatus, she had just returned to the Orange set where production has begun for its fifth season. By now that set is a familiar landscape. As Cindy, she moves like water, embodying passion, self-absorption, big-heartedness, and cynicism all at once and thus never completely. She summons the sort of laughs that acknowledge the tragedy underpinning absurdity.
Moore remarked at the beginning of our conversation that this summer, she is embarking on a new production cycle while renovating her apartment—a space she’s inhabited for almost 10 years but, until recently, with a roommate. Raised in Nashville, and then Atlanta, Moore relocated to New York City for graduate school, accompanied by a companion from home. Now that her friend has moved out, Moore finds herself in a space all her own, to do with as she pleases. These transitions have ushered in more capacious questions: “What do I really want?” she asked, laughing.
Orange is the New Black Season 4 spoilers ahead; this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: We’ve all just watched Season 4 of OITNB, so we’re all feeling like we’ve come to another ending, and here you are, at a place of beginnings. A new season, thinking through the space that you live in.
Adrienne C. Moore: It’s always interesting when the current season comes out because everyone is so hype, and we’ve been waiting since December of last year for this thing to air. Now that it’s finally here, we may have a week or so to celebrate [before] we are starting Season 5. You guys are experiencing what we experienced and went through six, seven months ago. And now it’s a new chapter, and an exciting chapter! Now we’re like “what really is gonna happen?” in the aftermath. We just got filming underway, and we’re already buzzing. We’re already like “Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!”
As you’re talking, I cannot express to you how hard I am fighting to not just ask you to tell me what happens! Tell me everything that happens!
Oh my gosh. There’s already so much to tell. And that’s what just continues to amaze me about the show. [After Season 4], all of us were like, “Now how are they going to top this?” What are they going to do to top this moment?” And we get the first episode for the fifth season, and we’re like “Oh my freaking gosh. Can you believe this?” So that continues to always bring me happiness and joy just that our writers are not relishing in the fact that Orange is a successful show — they’re still trying to push the envelope. To them, what’s more important is the conversation that’s sparked because of a show like Orange, not [that] the show is popular—it’s because we’re having serious conversations and bringing up serious topics about what’s going on in the world. And the fact that our writers and our cast continue to keep that as a priority, makes me feel that each season will always bring something powerful.
That brings me to what I’ve been thinking about these last couple days, with this wave of bloodshed. We lost both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Last night there was violence in Dallas. And obviously there’s a resonance with the show.
I come from parents who were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement during their time in Nashville. Both my parents went to Fisk which was the hub of the Freedom Fighters movement for young folks. My father and my mother marched in those demonstrations, and did the sit-ins, and my dad got arrested a few times. I think you’re dealing with not only a group of people, but a nation of people in total that are hurting and feeling as though they’re misunderstood.
And the part that actually frustrates me most of all is... that any time an African American individual is killed, whether it be by a police officer, or whether it be in prison, or however it happens, I feel that the news reports it as “Oh my goodness, a black man got killed. What’s going to happen with the black community? How are they going to react? Are they going to get violent? Are they going to retaliate in a way that’s going to be unsafe?” I feel that’s sending a message to people that black people are out of control or that we can’t control the fact that we are hurting.
We need people to recognize “Ok people, there is some inequality happening here.” We need someone to step up and say “This can’t happen anymore.” Instead, we’re painted as out of control, that our emotions are out of control, or that we don’t know how to handle ourselves, or we’re going to riot in the streets and picket and hurt other people. Now it is unfortunate that the cops in Dallas were murdered by snipers. But let’s not paint that whole picture as if that’s the entire black community, that that’s the way all of us handle our hurt and our anger. So those are my thoughts on it, and it’s interesting even how with Season 4 ending, how now we will address that in Season 5.
Social media has been flooded with footage from these shootings, and there are all of these questions about that: should we watch? Is it a cruel spectacle? And that really did make me think about Season 4 of Orange—Poussey’s death. Obviously there’s a chasm between fact and fiction, but Poussey’s death hearkens back to the murder of Eric Garner. What did it mean to witness something so brutal in the show?
What I feel the power that television, film, and even stage brings is how we can take a circumstantial situation and not only be entertained by it, but hopefully learn something by it. Like comedy—it allows people to talk about difficult subjects, and sometimes laughing makes them a little bit easier to discuss. I think that’s what storytelling does. Obviously, Poussey’s death is a dramatized version of what we have possibly seen in the news with Eric Garner and other individuals who have been murdered. But I think it allows people to at least have the same powerful conversation that needs to be had.
Now for me, I don’t really see a difference whether it’s dramatized or whether it’s an actual [event]. To me the story is the story is the story, and that is that a black [innocent] individual was murdered, and either nothing was done about it or [the question of justice remains]. What will be done about it, and who will be responsible for that person’s life? [Moreover,] now that person has become a legacy and not someone who still has a story and a journey that’s unfolding. It’s another situation where, okay, we can argue semantics about whether or not it’s possible or whether or not it’s appropriate to showcase that, or we can deal with the fact that this is something that’s happening whether or not it’s on a television screen in a dramatic version, or on a television screen because this was the nightly news. It doesn’t change the reality of the situation. It happened. It’s happening.
One of the things that really gave me pause was that after I finished watching Season 4 and was reading around, I read an interesting piece with the argument that OITNB is “trauma porn” for white viewers, that basically it is cruel spectacle with Poussey’s death as the epitome of this genre, allowing white people experience emotions of loss without actually having to face it. How would you respond to that argument?
I’m thinking back to when I used to do some babysitting here in New York, when I was in grad school, just kinda earn a little extra money. I don’t remember how I got into this conversation with this one parent. But essentially she said, “Well, racism doesn’t still exist. It’s like 2008!”
I was like, “Wait. What?” It almost took me aback. I realized that there are people out there in this world that [hold this belief]. What my experiences were as a black woman growing up in the South are going to be different from a white person that grew up in South Dakota, the things they’re exposed to. They may not have grown up watching BET, they may not have grown up watching Tavis Smiley or hearing about Michael Eric Dyson or Cornel West. So it’s really all about experience. And I think that some individuals, because maybe their experience may not be as close to it as others, they do prefer to feel less responsible. That’s the thing: if I don’t know it, and I don’t have any experience with it, then I can’t be responsible for the actions or the emotions or the sentiments or the tragedy that may be left in the aftermath of racism, or these killings. So it may be easier for me to just either plead ignorant or to just say “This is not my experience.” Slavery doesn’t exist, racism doesn’t still exist!” I think there are some individuals where it helps them sleep better at night by pleading distance to it, or keeping a blind eye and keeping it as close to them as they do their remote control. I see it on the TV, but it’s not in the world that I live in.
Season 4 of Orange tackled structural racism head on. In this sort of climate how do you view your role as an actress? You mentioned comedy earlier, and Black Cindy is such a comedic presence on the show.
I think my character uses humor to unmask a lot of the economic and political ills of our society. I think most people are beginning to really hear what Cindy has to say. Comedy [enables] that unveiling of the mask and those facades that we put up. It exposes truth in a non-threatening way. And I think Jenji [Kohan, OITNB director] is brilliant in that she’s able to talk about very sensitive and tough conversations in a way that can be palatable to a wider audience.
I remember when we were filming the last two episodes of Season 4, even before reading the script for episode 13 [in which Poussey is killed], thinking, “Oh man this is gonna give us a chance to really go off, be mad and seething and angry.” And then I remember in the script Jenji just kept writing “You’re emotional, but you’re not at that breaking point. You can’t break. You can’t break the lid off yet.” Because, if that happened, then dramatically you don’t have anywhere to go, but storytelling-wise it doesn’t allow others to connect in their own way because you’re giving them the emotional reaction you feel they should have. So I think Jenji utilizes Cindy’s humor in a way to say “Yeah, this is a messed up situation because ‘xyz,’” and to be able to lay out the messed up situation without necessarily having the emotional reaction to it. It allows the audience to have their own emotional response to the material.
One of the things that moved me so much in the 13th episode was your performance when Cindy and her friends were sitting shiva. I was simultaneously admiring but also very much caught up in the way that she would tell a joke about, say, Poussey’s pee funnel and then turn her head and go silent. We could see that she was trying not to break down—and then she’d come back.
Death is not easy—I’ll be honest with you, I just lost my father in the midst of all this—Season 4, and starting Season 5, and doing Taming of the Shrew. And it really made me take a hard look at this whole idea of joy and sorrow and happiness and pain, embracing this idea that if you’re embracing life, then you’re sort of simultaneously embracing death. Because you realize that in order for life to occur, death must also happen. People will have their own reactions to death, and it’s not my place or anybody else’s place to say how they should respond or anticipate how they will respond. Even when I lost my father, people were trying to say, “I get it, if you ever need to talk to me, if you ever want to just cry, I’m here for that.” And I’m thinking, I appreciate it, but I don’t want to sit there and stew in the sorrow of my father’s passing. Yes it is tragic, and yes, I do have my moments where I break down, but I don’t want to subject you to that—especially when I know my father was all about happiness and joy. And even in his passing [he would want me to] carry forth in happiness and joy—and yes, those moments will come where... I relive that loss. But it’s a choice. It’s a choice when you want to experience it and how and where you want to experience it. I choose to do that in privacy because I’m choosing happiness, and I’m choosing joy.
To correlate it with Orange, yes it was terrible that Poussey’s life came at a huge cost, but the joy in that is what her death [signifies]. What is it that we can learn from this experience? If you look at the entire fourth season, from the beginning we start talking about how this overcrowding is going to be a problem. People are on top of each other. This is going to boil over. When you go back to episode one of Season 4, we’re saying “This doesn’t bode well.” So how can we take this tragic death and learn from it?
We talk about overcrowding in prison all the time, but I don’t think people realize how serious it is. I just finished watching the first season of 60 Days In which is on A&E. They take real life volunteers who don’t have a criminal past and bring them into the prison as prisoners. They give them fake rap sheets and fake records so they can see what life is like in prison. Interestingly enough, all of them reported back the things we talk about in Orange—the fact that there’s an overcrowding issue, there’s a huge issue with drugs, but no way to really solve the drug problem. And it’s not about catching the person that’s doing the drugs. Why don’t we try to offer programming for these individuals? Why don’t we address the fact that the reason why phones are being smuggled into the prison system is because you’re caging the inmates? I’m not saying they don’t deserve some type of repercussion for their actions, but you’re taking someone who was free and caging them to the point where violence and drugs and other criminal activity is causing them to do what they do because you haven’t really addressed the problem of how we rehabilitate the individuals. You’ve shown how you’re punishing them, but how are you then rehabilitating them? Most times in the African-American community, individuals are prone to crime because of the economic and political structure around them. It’s disturbing to know that this is a reality in our society, but the positive is that now we have shows like Orange that can bring that to light in a way that can cause serious discussion.
You make such a good point bringing up the smuggled phones. I mean, there’s only so much you can do to isolate someone. Like you said, there are repercussions for actions, but let’s not be so focused on punishment that we fail to ask “What can a human being take? Or what can a spirit sustain?” I was really moved by the way that Cindy grapples with the conversion narrative in Season 3, and am wondering how you see Cindy shifting since she’s become Tova.
I think she’s definitely still shifting. There’s a deep-seated anger Cindy has that she is learning to tame. Look at that brief moment in Season 3 when she was called Jew-ish, and it shows that quick flashback to her father at the dinner table and how quickly her father was to get angry. We’re all products of how we were raised, so I can only imagine that Cindy probably has that same quick temper. She jokes about it in other seasons, and she’s always ready to get into that brawl. But I think in Season 3 she learned that whether you’re a sinner or a saint, it’s not about where you stand in terms of your righteousness but [rather] to just do the act of God, just do God. And regardless of what religious angle you look at it from, whether it’s Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu—it all deals with compassion and love and putting others above yourself.
I think that’s the journey Cindy is discovering while she’s in prison. I think this Jewish faith is allowing her to see that in a different way... not just judging someone based on their righteousness or their sinful nature. It’s about constantly trying to understand and do. And in Season 4, when she meets Abdullah, that faith is quickly put to test. Abdullah is trying to come up in this prison acting like she’s supreme already, and trying to just fit in, and she hasn’t really earned her place yet in their group. But faith is teaching her to have compassion. So Season 4 is teetering back and forth between old Black Cindy and Tova.
And then she’s got this amazing, textured backstory, beyond the prison. This is something that I think a lot of people have been wondering about since it was introduced. We know that years ago, Cindy was pregnant, she had a baby, and has since lived pretending to be her daughter’s sister. But after it was introduced it hasn’t come up, and it’s not something that Cindy talks about. Has that backstory influenced the way that you perform the role?
Oh, absolutely. The Mother’s Day episode—now story-wise, the writers didn’t get into it, but me as the actor, I remember that was something that was constantly on my mind. Which is why I think Black Cindy took the approach of badgering and bullying the kids.
But I also think the great thing about our show is that there are so many wonderful stories to tell. It’s just a matter of time before the writers circle back. Especially when they leave a story open-ended, to me that means they’re going to come back to it at a different point. And I think, with Black Cindy, you kind of saw what her game was as a TSA agent, but you didn’t quite find out what actually was the crime that got her arrested. So I think it’s just a matter of time before the writers disclose everything. And that’s kind of the cool thing about Cindy, cause it means that I’m gonna be around a little bit longer for them to tell that story! Which I don’t mind! You don’t have to give up the goose on everything just yet.
This is more of a general question—how has Cindy’s character influenced you? And how much of yourself do you feel you’re bringing to the character?
I think it’s a mixture of myself and—one thing I love to hear people say, and this is what I identified when I first read Cindy’s breakdown in the script, is that they feel like they know a girl like Cindy or are a girl like Cindy. Obviously I’m bringing myself to her, but I feel like I know and I grew up around Cindys. What’s at the core of Cindy explains why she has the relationship with her daughter and her mother that she has, in that she is first priority. And she does not apologize for that. I think being in prison will have an effect on her, and it may have an effect on her relationship with her daughter and her mother. I don’t know, but I’m just guessing that this religious journey that she’s on and then the fact that it brings up that she has this daughter that she’s not acknowledging—down the road, maybe this will cause some sort of awakening.
To answer your question more pointedly, I think art imitates life and vice versa. No, I do not have a child—yet. Yet. But Adrienne absolutely loves children. I swear every child that I babysat, unless they were some terror or Dennis the Menace, they were my child. So that is one thing that is a marked difference between Cindy and me.
During Season 3 I was going through my own spiritual journey. I was just finishing a play where I was playing an angel, or some ethereal figure, and I remember in that play my character has this long monologue about [how] you can try to figure out who I am, what I am, “but what I am is this: I am that I am what I am.” I think in this life we’re all trying to figure out who we are, why we’re here, there’s something bigger than us out there, what it is. It’s left up to your own interpretation and your spiritual background and culture, but I think to some extent we all maybe veer agnostic. You kind of recognize there’s something out there bigger than you. I know I was going through that. Like Cindy, I grew up in a very Christian household—not as stern as hers—but I grew up in the South. So every day of the week, you were at church for something, not just for Sunday Service—Bible study, choir rehearsal, volunteering, there was always something going on at church. And then all through college I was heavily involved in the campus ministry, and then even after that I was always involved with a church in some capacity. That was one thing I connected with Cindy on.
And then she has this sort of brazen honesty that I’ve sort of learned to tame, because you realize it can be a little off-putting to people. I think somebody told me once, “Adrienne, people don’t always need to hear your truth, or your opinion.” So over the years I’ve learned to tame my mouth, but Cindy hasn’t really learned that lesson yet. I think we all have a bit of our characters hidden inside of us. It’s a great way to do my own psychology!
This is personal, but it’s interesting that you brought up the parallel in your life as you were going through Cindy’s conversion. My mother was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. I did start asking more questions, and I think that’s why Cindy’s conversion scene has stuck with me because I’ve been in a similar place, reevaluating—doing my own spiritual psychology, if you will.
That scene resonated with a lot of people. Of that entire season, that’s the scene people talk about the most, Cindy’s conversation with the rabbi. This is why I try not to judge people, because I think no one knows everyone’s secret or what their personal journeys are—what each person is wrestling with. In that moment Cindy exposes what a lot of people go through: “I know I’m not perfect, but I know I’m a good person. I’m just tired of some religion or some institution trying to judge me, when I know I’m still evolving.” I’m not where I’m going to be a year from now. I want to know that I’m ok how I am now. That [nuance to the scene] resonated with a lot of people. And if you think about it Cindy’s initial reason for becoming Jewish [to be able to eat the prison’s special, ostensibly better kosher meals] wasn’t the best, right?
But fair enough!
That food — it’s real prison food! Even when we’re filming, when we look at that shit we’re like “Ugh I would not eat that!” And people are looking at me while we’re filming in the cafeteria all mad because you can actually look at my [kosher] food and see what it is: “Oh, that’s a chicken finger! Oh that’s peas, and not some mush.” And so yes, while her intentions weren’t really right, there was this beautiful awakening that she had that I think down the road will reveal more to her.
It feels like she’s actively taking control of her own narrative. But like you said, she’s still becoming who she is.
And we all are.