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Hurt Village - Off-Broadway

Tonya Pinkins stars in the world premiere of Katori Hall's drama.

Hurt Village Star Tonya Pinkins on Caroline, Sweet Anita and Other Unforgettable Roles

Hurt Village Star Tonya Pinkins on Caroline, Sweet Anita and Other Unforgettable Roles
Tonya Pinkins
Tonya Pinkins recalls memorable ladies she has played on stage.

Tonya Pinkins is always on the lookout for big career challenges. “I have this incredible curiosity and I get bored easily, so I want to do something different,” says the Tony-winning actress, who is currently headlining Katori Hall’s Hurt Village at the new Signature Theatre Center. In the second installment of Broadway.com’s Role Call, Pinkins looks back on career-shaping roles in musicals, contemporary plays and Shakespeare in the Park.

Role That Was
Most Like Me

“When I first read Caroline, or Change [Tony nomination, 2004], there were so many things that made me say, ‘Wow, that’s my life.’ Caroline was 39 years old and she had four kids; I was 39 and I had four kids. She’d had a betrayal by a husband, and I was like, ‘That’s my story. Got it!’ It was so meaningful to me to see a maid—a person who is normally invisible—on a Broadway marquee. And it was the first time I played a character where the creators weren’t asking me to make her likeable. Many times, people hire me as a black woman and want me to be strong; they want me to be tough; and then I bring them that, and they go, ‘Wait a minute: People are not going to like her.’ Caroline didn’t do things that were likeable, but she did things that were understandable, so people could relate to her whether they agreed with her or not. Even if they didn’t like her, they could find a piece of themselves in her.”

Role I Had
the Most Fun Doing

“Lady Liv in Play On! [Tony nomination, 1997] was fun for a lot of reasons. When I was offered the part, I had just gotten a full scholarship to law school at Cal Western San Diego, but I didn’t have the money for housing. My manager called and said, ‘There’s a musical [loosely based on Twelfth Night] at the Old Globe. Isn’t that where your law school is?’ Lady Liv was this exotic, sexy jazz siren [in 1940s Harlem] and I said to the director, ‘What’s going on under those Erte gowns? I’m pregnant.’ He said, ‘How pregnant?’ I said, ‘Just a little.’ I didn’t tell him that I would be seven months pregnant at the start of rehearsals! I delivered my child during the run, took two days off, finished the run and then went to Broadway. Play On! was such a good show. I’m sorry more people didn’t get to see it.”

Role That Was
Small But Sweet

“The bawd [Mistress Overdone] in Measure for Measure [2011] was my third Shakespeare in the Park. I did Merry Wives of Windsor [in 1994], and last summer I did Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well [as the Countess of Rousillion]. Measure for Measure is actually my favorite Shakespeare play because of the divine justice that happens in the end; everyone gets their comeuppance. I got to play the bawd, working with some of the most amazing comic actors—Carson Elrod, Lucas Caleb Rooney and Reg Rogers. It was a great opportunity to learn. Even my own agents said, ‘That was very not Tonya Pinkins.’ And I said, ‘I wonder what Tonya Pinkins is?’”

Role I'd Like
to Be Remembered For

“In addition to Caroline, or Change, I would like to be remembered for playing Sweet Anita in Jelly’s Last Jam [Tony Award, 1992]. It was my first role as an adult rather than an ingénue. When I got the script, I thought, ‘This is a woman like my grandmother. Can I bring all that to the part?’ Anita and Jelly had this hot, fiery relationship that spanned decades, to his deathbed. When I came into the production at [L.A.’s] Mark Taper, I was terrified because I had never had a role with that kind of depth. [Director] George Wolfe told me later that he was going to fire me, but our cars pulled into a parking lot at the same time one day, and he thought it was a sign that he should give me another chance! The next day, I did what I had to do, and it was shocking to everyone. Gregory Hines was magical as Jelly: He had the ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He was an extraordinary improvisational dancer, and that’s what he was like as an actor, as well.”

Role I Looked
the Best In

“I’d have to say The Wild Party [2000]. Toni-Leslie James designed this fabulous black beaded gown and a cape with a huge fur collar, so my entrance was extravagant. The coat was extraordinary, and then I got to take it off to reveal an even more extraordinary dress, with a pin-curled, flat-to-the-head hairdo. I played Kate, the best friend of Queenie [Toni Collette], and we were both sleeping with the same guy. I arrive at the party with this guy, she is there with her husband, and the fireworks begin. The show was exciting as an actor because being onstage continuously allowed you to do incredibly detailed work; you had to keep the life going through the entire length of the play. At the time, people said, ‘Oh my god, nothing happens,’ but I feel like Wild Party paved the way for shows like Next to Normal, where you don’t have to have a dramatic arc.”

Role That Was
the Hardest

“The role that’s been the most challenging for me is the one I’m playing right now: Big Mama in Hurt Village, a great-grandmother and the matriarch in this Memphis family. Katori Hall’s language is like music. It has both an accent and a dialect, and it is truly like learning a foreign language. In the play, my house is the main house, and I have my great-granddaughter living with me. My daughter is dead, my grandson has come home from the war, and I also have my great-granddaughter’s mother living with us, who has just gotten off a crack cocaine addiction. Vocally, Big Mama is as strenuous as Caroline, or Change because of the emotional range, and the way Katori writes is incredibly challenging.”

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