Blackness as 'a decorative motif'? Tonya Pinkins explains why she left 'Mother Courage'

Blackness as 'a decorative motif'? Tonya Pinkins explains why she left 'Mother Courage'
Tony Award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins, seen here at the 2014 opening of "King Lear," explains why she is leaving the Classic Stage Company's production of "Mother Courage and Her Children" before it opens. (Andy Kropa / Invision/AP)

Since making her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical "Merrily We Roll Along," Tonya Pinkins has won a Tony in 1992 for "Jelly's Last Jam" and was nominated for 1997's "Play On!" and 2004's "Caroline, or Change."

But New York audiences won't be seeing her in the Classic Stage Company's production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" after the play's Broadway premiere. Blaming "white creatives" behind the production, she abruptly quit "Mother Courage" barely a week before the play's scheduled Jan. 7 premiere.


That opening date has been postponed until a replacement for Pinkins can be found. The show has been in previews since Dec. 10.

According to Pinkins, who says she is contractually obligated to perform in the production through Jan. 3, an early draft explaining her reasons for leaving the show was leaked without her permission. But on New Year's Eve, she gave Playbill an unedited version of her statement. Playbill also ran a statement from Classic Stage artistic director Brian Kulick. Both perspectives are certain to be hotly debated in the days to come.

"My perspective as a Black woman," Pinkins wrote in the statement, "was dismissed in favor of portraying the Black woman, through the filter of the White gaze. ... When Black bodies are on stage, Black perspectives must be reflected. This is not simply a matter of 'artistic interpretation'; race and sex play a pivotal role in determining who holds the power to shape representation. A Black female should have a say in the presentation of a Black female on stage."

As part of her fight for a say in the roles she'll play in the future, Pinkins says she's starting the hashtag #BlackPerspectivesMatter.

One dramatic example of how Pinkins felt muzzled in the artistic development of her character involved a simple gesture:

"Despite Brecht's title, Mother Courage was not the star of this production," she said in her statement. "My subordinate position was most clearly communicated to me when I attempted to perform a task Brecht specifically wrote for Mother Courage: snatching a fur coat off an armed soldier's back. The actor playing the soldier argued, 'I'm a man. This is a war. She gotta RESPECT that; I'd have to kill her!' I fired back, 'Brecht wrote it. Mother Courage CAN snatch the fur coat and not get killed. Brecht is illustrating her as an 'Hyena of the war.' I told the actor I was going to snatch the fur coat, and if he 'had to kill me,' the play would have to end seven scenes earlier than Brecht had intended.

"I snatched the fur coat at the performance. The actor found a way to continue the play. However, the director said that in future, I couldn't do it, because, 'the actor said he would kill you.' WHAT?!

"Mother Courage coddled and reprimanded into submission to patriarchy?"

In his own statement on the rift, Kulick said he had tremendous respect for Pinkins an actress and an activist: "I am so sorry that over the course of this production our views on Mother Courage diverged. Theatre is a collaborative art and we both entered this production in that spirit but, sadly, we have reached an impasse. One goes into a theatre production with suspicions and hunches and a play slowly reveals what it might want to be. Tonya and I seemed to have started with the same basic questions but reach two different vantage points."

A large part of the disagreement was focused on the word "delusional."

"It was not relayed to me until the final tech rehearsal that the vision for this Mother Courage ... was of a delusional woman trying to do the impossible," Pinkins said. "She would not be an icon of feminine tenacity and strength, nor of a Black female's fearless capabilities. Why must the Black Mother Courage be delusional?"

Pinkins also objected to the way the play's transfer of the action from World War II to modern-day Congo was handled:

"The #CSCMotherCourage poster finds my face plastered on an image of the African Continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted. The inspiration: Lynn Nottage's impulse to create a Black Mother Courage, which culminated in her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Ruined.' What an opportunity to connect Brecht's anti-World War II play to the war in modern day Congo, Africa's first World War. My art meeting my activism. The chance to highlight the Chaplain's line, ]If you want to sup with the devil you need a long spoon,' as analogous to America's participation in the war in the Congo through our appetites for electronic devices which require [the metallic ore] coltan, which is raped and pillaged along with the bodies of Black women and children.


"This production does not include a single vestige of the specific war in the Congo. For me, the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable. Why must Africa, why must blackness itself, be general, a decorative motif, instead of being as specific and infinitely diverse as its reality?"

Kulick said he thought the production could allude to the Congo without specifics:

"As Tonya and I worked on the production the question became how specific does one have to become to evoke the Congo? Do we need place names, do we need to rewrite narration to make this leap or can it live in the realm of images, music and the given circumstances of the actors? I gravitated toward what I would call a more 'open' approach, Tonya was longing for specifics. As we kept working on the play, this question and how to answer it became louder and louder to each of us to a point where I think we couldn't hear each other anymore.

"Toward the end of the process I used a very strong word to characterize a potential end point for Mother Courage. The word was 'delusional.' This grew out of my reading of Brecht's notes, where he states over and over again that the point of Mother Courage is that she does not learn from the events of the play."

Still, Kulick added, he and Pinkins reworked the ending "toward an image which spoke to her idea of Mother Courage as 'survivor.' "

"I was pleased with the final result," he said. "It was our last moment of collaboration. I felt it allowed the audience to see both possibilities in one image. This duality, for me, is at the very heart of the theatrical enterprise, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves what to make of this deeply contradictory character known as Mother Courage."

Pinkins says it wasn't an easy decision to quit the production. "Not since 'Caroline, or Change,' ten years ago, have I had a role of this caliber," she said, calling Mother Courage "the King Lear in the classical cannon of female roles." "How do I walk away from what could be one of the greatest roles in my career? I couldn't, until all my research, arguing and pleading for my character's full realization fell on deaf ears. And then I had to."

In the end, Pinkins said, "My Mother Courage was neutered, leaving the unbridled Mother Courage wasting away inside me. My Mother Courage is too big for CSC's definition. So it is best that they find someone to 'fit in,' because I cannot."