“Orange Is the New Black” star Adrienne C. Moore on a lack of diversity in the arts: "It's not an accurate reflection of what is going on in the world"

"Black Cindy" sat down with Salon to discuss the wage gap, working family burdens, and the power of women's stories

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published March 14, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Adrienne C. Moore      (AP/Colin Young-wolff)
Adrienne C. Moore (AP/Colin Young-wolff)

Adrienne C. Moore is best known as Black Cindy on “Orange Is the New Black,” the groundbreaking Netflix series set in a women’s prison in upstate New York. Though the show is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name and began as an exploration of the process Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) undergoes to acclimate from her privileged New York life to prison, the series quickly garnered nearly universal acclaim for its moving and funny portraits of a diverse cast of female characters of all ages, races and walks of life. Collectively, the cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding ensemble in a comedy series in January. The show returns June 12.

Between season shoots, Moore keeps busy acting in other projects. Though she makes New York her home now, Moore was born in the South and identifies as a Southerner. She, along with her twin sister and older brother, grew up in Nashville and Atlanta, where her parents still live. We caught up with Moore in Louisville, Kentucky, where she had hoped to outrun New York’s brutal winter, only to find herself dodging a foot of early March snow. Moore is in Louisville acting in “Selma” star Colman Domingo’s new play “Dot,” which is making its world premiere in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, one of the preeminent new play showcases in the country.

“Dot” is a dark comedy set in West Philadelphia. Moore plays one of the adult children of a woman in the early stages of dementia. Caregiving is one of the main concerns of the Make It Work campaign, a push to help create a more sustainable foundation for American working families. Moore has been working with Make It Work, starring in a short film that examines the daily stresses of working parents trying to keep up with work, bills, a home life and their children’s education.

We sat down with Young at the theater earlier this week to discuss the problems working families face, diversity in TV and the American theater, wage gaps for women and minorities, and what’s in store for Black Cindy and the women of Litchfield in the coming season, which she assures us will not disappoint.

I find the fan and critical response to "Orange Is the New Black" so encouraging and heartening. It still feels revolutionary that there’s this prestige TV show that is solely about women’s stories. Any of the male characters that are on the show are only there to let us get to know and deepen our relationships with all of these women — such a diverse cast, with characters from so many different backgrounds. What has that been like, working on a show like that, versus work that you’ve done before?

It’s been amazing. I’ve been lucky thus far in my career to work with individuals and work on shows that are ground breaking or have strong women as their lead. I’m thinking primarily of “30 Rock” and working with Tina Fey. She’s a powerhouse and someone I admire because she also, like Jenji [Kohan], has this very interesting take on life and on America and its politics and its economy. She’s woven that into this wonderful sitcom of “30 Rock” that it was and even still continues to be. Even with “Orange,” Jenji loves talking about how you take these parts of life that would probably, for the average person, be depressive, you cast them aside. She’s made these wonderful and important, thought-provoking stories about them based on Piper Kerman’s book of the same title. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been able to surround myself with some really powerful women who tell some really powerful and thought-provoking stories.

Even with this show that I’m working on, “Dot,” written by a man, but a very powerful one as well, dealing with a family and a group of strong women. Dot, our mother, is experiencing dementia and we are siblings, two of the female leads in this show are two forces of nature that are just clashing with each other. One has this perspective of, “Oh you know, yeah she’s going through it, let’s just ride or die with her.” And the other one is like, “No, we have to do this. We have to get her into senior assisted living, we have to do all this stuff.” So they really clash in this show.

I love telling a good story, I love telling a story that not only entertains us and makes us laugh, makes us cry, whatever your emotional connection is to it, but it also, when you walk away from it, you have this experience that makes you think and it makes you look into something that you would normally just pass by and not have a second thought about.

Elder care is such a huge issue right now because people are living longer, but the legacy of the state of healthcare in the United States means that we have this aging population that might not always be in the best shape or at the best entry point into that later part of life. I think that this really speaks to the “Make it Work” campaign that you’re working on, too, that working parents aren’t just trying to raise kids and work at the same time, but also have their parents living with them in some cases, too, or have to be the primary advocates for him.

You bring up a really good point. We are living longer these days and with that we have to look at how our country has focused on healthy living, healthy lifestyles and providing, I want to say the American people, but I feel it’s more global than that, but since we’re in America let’s focus on what’s going on here, how the products and things that we give to our country — as much as I love fast food and I grew up on eating fast food, it’s not the healthiest and it has its repercussions long term.

I look at my parents who are getting older. I was just talking to my mom now, talking with her about some health issues and so forth, so it’s something that is overlooked in a very unfortunate way, I think.

We just think, “Oh okay, they’re retired now. We’ve given them a certain amount of money to live off of,” but really healthcare is very expensive. I know we have subsidies for our elderly community, but they still need help. Then it becomes a burden on the children.

I don’t say burden in a negative way, because I’m always going to obviously provide for my parents when and if they need it, but at the same time when I’m trying to forge my career and my destiny and my future and so forth, I do that with the sense of I have to have a little bit on the side just in case I need to help mom and dad out, or sister or brother, whatever it is, which is what we do for family.

But it begs the question: if a person works all this time to provide a sustainable living for themselves and their family, how is it now that they’re at a place where they’re supposed to be enjoying the fruits of their labor and they really can’t because they’re still worrying about making sure they’re keeping that roof over their head? They’re not making the same income that they were making when they were working, but yet the bills keep on piling and they keep on growing.

Do you think that that’s something that affects working women disproportionately? I feel like in our culture still it’s so ingrained that women are the nurturers, the caretakers.

We’re the nurturers, but also, on the “Make it Work” website where they list their research and their data, women still make on average less than men in the workplace. And then you have African Americans making less than Caucasian counterparts, and then the Latino community makes even less than the African American and the Caucasian counterparts. So it certainly does have its effect. As women we’re supposed to bear the burden of raising our families and then also financially providing for them as well, and it’s difficult when you’re already starting off making less than the average.

Which was something that the conversation around Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech really swirled around, how complex of an issue it really is, not just, “Women are paid less, let’s close that gap.”

It’s always a difficult and touchy conversation to have because at this point, people need jobs and they’ll pretty much accept what they can get. I had this conversation years ago with a friend of mine, just happenstance, and he said to me, “What do you think your salary should be for whatever job?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” I think I came up with some arbitrary number, and he was like, “What do you think that’s based off of?” I said, “My skills,” I just listed years of experience in the career, what kind of skills you bring to the table and so forth, and he just said so candidly, “Or how about your time?” Because I think we place the emphasis on skill set and expertise, as we should, but also we don’t look at how valuable our time is. We spend so many hours a day, even if we’re not physically in the office, working, thinking about work and planning and setting up and organizing with work, even with our families. There’s something to be said about how we value our time and how that equates into compensation as well.

That’s something that really affects artists, who are constantly asked to contribute for free. “Play for exposure,” or “It’s a great platform,” or “It’ll be very visible.”

And we do it because yes, we do love the craft and we do love the art. I think artists have this slight ego about the love of showcasing and being on stage and telling a story, right? But we are often asked to do things, or like, “Well if you love it, why don’t you just do it anyway?” Yeah, but I still have to eat! I can’t tell my landlord, “Just let me stay here because you want to provide housing.” No, you want to make money!

You can’t pay your art school student loans back with exposure.

No I can’t, trust me. I can’t have that conversation with ACS and Sallie Mae, no I can’t, they will not understand. They’ll say, “So when can we expect that payment?” at the end of the conversation.

To circle back to “Make it Work” and what we can do, as a culture, to make it less burdensome for working families to have a sustainable quality of life. Sometimes I feel like critics of this conversation say, “Well why should everybody have it easy?” But what about a sustainable life, a decent quality of life? What could we be doing differently?

I think “Make it Work” has a great platform in that they advocate for affordable childcare. I was a babysitter in New York, one of my many jobs that I had when I was trying to make it work for myself in New York. Not every parent has the luxury of hiring personal babysitters. There were times that even as a babysitter, I would take the kids to these Gymboree or these after school or extracurricular facilities for kids, leave your kids there for a few hours and come pick them up whenever you’re ready — those places are expensive. They are expensive. You walk in there and you’re like, “Wow, I kind of want to go here, too!” I think having opportunities like that but making it affordable for parents. Being a childcare provider for years, I even had that thought.

I’d love to get some government-subsidized funding and open up a wonderful daycare, after school facility, because that’s what my parents did when I was growing up. That’s how I got into the arts. They would put me in a music or piano lesson or singing lesson or basketball or there was a community theater in Nashville that I would be a part of. But doing something like that that would be more affordable, I think, for families. Same thing with elderly care, subsidizing that.

Particularly for artists: Student loan forgiveness, or even schools, particularly at the graduate school level, providing scholarships — full rides — because it is so difficult once you get out. What we do is as actors and artists is not necessarily something we can walk into a 9-to-5 job with afterwards. Some might, if you’re lucky. So things like that would be helpful.

Paid sick leave, and even more maternity leave help for their families. I know some companies even provide on-site daycare for their employees so the parents can still keep an eye on and monitor their kids and still have that connection with their kids. My brother, for example, just became a father, and works a lot of hours but he’s always thinking about his son, and wondering what his son is doing, and wanting to be there. I think that’s one of the things as parents, you now have this child and this life that you’re responsible for and they’re learning so much and you want to be a part of that process, but it’s difficult when the majority of the time they’re awake, you’re working. I think opportunities like that where you can bridge that gap for the families, so they can still have a decent quality and sustainable life.

That’s not revolutionary, right?

I remember Obama spoke about it even in his State of the Union speech this year. He was saying that when women started going to work in droves and our men were in the war, they provided childcare for women, and it worked. So it’s like, what happened? Why can’t that still happen today? I think that’s something that should be looked into again.

I know a lot of people that would agree with that.


So, switching gears back to acting, do you do a lot of theater?

I try to. Theater, to me, is the original. It’s where it all started, and I think there is this level of play and excitement. I think about a great tennis volleying match, which just goes back and forth, back and forth. If you’ve ever been to a tennis match or even watched on television and they pan to the audience, you just see the heads, the crowd, going back and forth, and I feel like that’s what theater brings when you really get it right, because you can’t drop that ball.

Sometimes in television and in film, you can call “Cut,” you can be like, “Oh I’m sorry, let me go back, let me try that again.” But on stage, even if you mess up, it’s [about] how do you still recover that, as your character and in the moment, and just being alive and just being present. So there’s this level of presence that I just love about it, and really having that visceral and immediate reaction from the audience that I will always respect. It’s my gym, so to speak. It’s where I love to train and work out and make sure that I’m still strong in my storytelling.

What’s the most exciting thing about working on a new play like “Dot?”

A lot of things. I’ve been fortunate also that most of, I think all of, my professional career in theater has been new plays. So being able to work with the playwright, I feel like I’m reaching into their mouth and pulling the words out and trying to understand what it is that their vision is, what excited them enough to even write this story.

Working with Colman Domingo, who’s the playwright of this show — Colman is a phenomenal actor, he just left the West End doing “Scottsboro Boys,” I would not be surprised if that came back to New York on Broadway, but he also just finished “Selma” and “The Butler” — I remember when I first saw him in “Passing Strange,” I remember my hair on my arms stood up because I was like, “Oh my gosh, he’s crazy and exciting.” And that’s what I love. He brings that into his writing where he’s like, “Okay, what do you need? What do you need? What can I help you with?” He’s not about ego; he understands, because he’s an actor himself, what an actor needs to allow the words to leap off the pages and to then be present and active and exciting, not only for the audience but for the actor.

We just had our first dress [rehearsal] last night and we were sitting around talking about it and he was just encouraging and saying, “This is a play where you've got to push, you’ve got to move forward,” and that’s what this play is. There’s not a moment really to just sit and relax, because in life we don’t really live that way. We’re always fighting and pushing and moving forward for the things that we want. This play certainly brings that, and in general, I think that’s what I love about theater: the stakes are high. When you read Shakespeare, he starts off like, boom: “Two kingdoms at war.” Boom, there it is! And you’re in there and you don’t let up until the end.

Right now it seems like TV is the answer to Hollywood’s ongoing diversity problem. What about the American theater? How is that for you as an actress? Are there enough roles out there to keep you interested and busy?

I think overall there is a lack of diversity in the arts. I’m thinking about when I was in grad school I could probably count on one hand the number of minority students in the graduate school program. I think partly it’s because grad school is a financial responsibility and if schools aren’t providing scholarships for it, it is something that you really have to think about. One: “Do I want to take on this responsibility?” But then two, even in our grad school program, you have to cast what your student body is and the majority of our student body were not minorities. So a lot of our plays and so forth didn’t have an honest reflection of the world today.

In New York you can find diversity. You may not find it on the mainstream level, you may not find it on Broadway or even some off-Broadway theaters. But you could find it off-off-off-off-Broadway — and then maybe five more offs. But I certainly think that it does beg the conversation, because it’s not an accurate reflection of what is going on in the world and how we intermix and intermingle in our culture today. I think there’s this idea that if we put up a play with all African-Americans or all Latinas or even if we mix it up, then it won’t really sell to a mainstream audience. At the end of the day, what’s going to drive the story being told is what’s going to drive people to the seats. Even on Broadway today, you see a lot of people coming to Broadway are coming from television, are coming from film, because that’s what’s going to fill the seats. They hike up the prices as a result of that, and then you lose the story.

But I think if we look at it, a story is a story is a story. I really hope that one day we can get to the point where it’s not a delineation between black Hollywood and Hollywood and Bollywood and mainstream and small theater. I don’t think that really tells the true picture. I look at even my circle of friends and they’re the spectrum, and we have similar stories and we have different stories, but I’m just as interested in what's going on in their world as they are with what’s going on in mine. It’s colorless.

Anything you can tell us about the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” and Black Cindy’s journey?

As you put the microphone closer to me. [Laughs.] I would say it’s very interesting. I don’t want to give away any specifics. I think Jenji has already gone on record saying that it does focus a little bit on religion this season, which you will see, and how that journey plays out for a lot of the characters and I think it will cause a lot of conversation. That's what I’ve been saying, because I know, even as I read the script for each episode, it made me even think, and it made me even ask myself certain questions. I had a conversation with myself — because I couldn’t really have it with anyone else — about religion and about how we emphasize it and how we hold these really strong beliefs on it and how it affects our culture and our society.

Well, Cindy grew up in the church, she’s the one who can surprisingly break out the chapter and verse. So is she going to have a role in that ongoing storyline?

You will see!

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

MORE FROM Erin Keane

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adrienne C. Moore Black Cindy Orange Is The New Black Patricia Arquette Wage Gap Working Families