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Building Character: Tonya Pinkins

Date: Feb 22, 2012


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.


Tonya Pinkins believes in Hurt Village

In Katori Hall's latest play, now in previews at the Signature Theatre's new complex, the actress stars as Big Mama, the weary matriarch of a Memphis housing project where drugs, violence, and poverty are coiled around everyone's throat. Even in this nightmare, however, there are flickers of hope: Big Mama's talented great-granddaughter is threatening to flourish. Her grandson has just come back from the Iraq War. And there's a chance the government will help her family move to a better part of town. When trouble comes, Big Mama clings to these silver linings, and her effort gives the production a furious energy.

For Pinkins, Big Mama feels authentic. "There's a rawness to [Katori's] work that I would say allows you to bring all your truth to it," she says. And that's not the case with every production: "I did another play, and it was also a black play, and I didn't find anything about the people to be real. I didn't know any black people like them. It was an awkward sort of thing to be portraying black people who didn't feel authentic. But with Katori's stuff, it's so raw that the comments I've gotten from friends are that it [shows] a part of life that they want to forget, that they don't want to look at."

Along with this kind of feedback, Pinkins gauges a play's authenticity by her ability to remember her lines. Instead of sitting down and learning a script by rote, she uses what she calls "a kinesthetic connection between language and action" to memorize a role. In other words, she remembers what to say by moving around on stage and letting the circumstances of a moment trigger her dialogue. "I find that when I know the action of the play and know what I'm doing---which is often subtext beyond what the director tells me to do---the words come," she says. "That's how I know that the play is right."

But Pinkins, who is perhaps best known for her star turn in Caroline, or Change and her Tony Award-winning work in Jelly's Last Jam, always blends these impulses with technical observations. "Besides making internal choices, I'm making choices as an outsider, watching," she says. "I'm thinking about my performance and what I want it to add up to."

For instance, Big Mama has two moments of colossal rage---one with her family and one with a welfare agent. Pinkins explains, "I'm thinking, 'So what's the rage like in the rampage at the end of act one versus the rage in the welfare office?' It's making sure that the emotions she gets to in those [scenes] are different kinds of things."

She continues, "One night, and I can't say why, I started weeping in the middle of the rampage, and the director [Patricia McGregor] said, 'I like that. That felt like a release that you would have in front of family members, where in the welfare office, it's more your struggle not to cry because you don't want her to see you break down.' "It was being clear that there might be tears in both scenes, but they were coming from a different place, and that came out of me just honestly responding one night to what was going on on stage."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus