In 2004 Oprah Winfrey chose actress Tonya Pinkins as “one of the 10 women in America who take your breath away.” In McCarter’s production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” through Sunday, April 8, Pinkins plays the role of the wife of an African American running for public office. In addition to wifely responsibilities, she is also a public relations person running his mayoral campaign. “Radio Golf” is the last play of August Wilson’s decade by decade journey through the African American experience of the 20th century.
Again taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson himself grew up, we look at the 1990s, a time when some “African Americans have broken through the ceiling and can own radio stations and play on a golf course that they couldn’t 40 years earlier,” says Pinkins in explanation of the play’s title.
“When the play begins, it is the best time of our lives. Everything we had been working for has come to fruition,” Pinkins says. The conflict in the play arises from the “lost song,” their forgotten history. Pinkins sees the conflict as success in our capitalist society versus the core and center of what life is about. “We’ve lost touch with what is right and wrong.” As Wilson himself is quoted: “You have to know your history. Then you’ll have a purposeful presence in the world.”
It is not a big stretch for Pinkins to play a go-getter as she is certainly one herself. Not only is she an actress, but also a teacher, lecturer, author, activist, recording artist, cabaret singer, and mother. As a youngster growing up in Chicago, she participated in the Goodman Theater’s Young People’s Program and Northwestern University’s Summer Theater Institute. Her father was a police officer; her mother worked at the post office and also was a city bus driver.
From early on, she knew her place was in arts. She can’t remember not feeling that way. She went to Carnegie Mellon University to study musical theater. However, one year into her studies, when she was only 18 years old, she left school to perform on Broadway in the Sondheim musical, “Merrily We Roll Along.” Her professional acting career was launched in that big Broadway musical.
There is a chunk of her life that she prefers to leave behind and not talk about. Suffice it to say that while she continued her career as an actress performing Off Broadway and in television, she was married and had two children, Myles and Maxx, who are now grown. A difficult divorce left her broke and at a real low point in her life. She credits the Agape Religious Science Church with helping her make the turnaround.
Pinkins’ book “Get Over Yourself: How to Drop the Drama and Claim the Life You Deserve” is a self-help book that uses her experience to help others overcome stumbling blocks in life. She often teaches and lectures on the material in her book. For fellow thespians, she teaches a course called “The Actorpreneur Attitude” to steer a self-determined and motivated way of life rather than being at the mercy of fate or chance.
Pinkins first attended the Agape Church to hear a lecture by Gary Sukoff of Dancing Wu Li Masters fame. At first she was suspect of Religious Science teachings. She whispers as if telling me a secret, “I didn’t like it. After all I was raised Catholic. I thought I was going to burn in hell.” She laughs. But she went back and she tells me that one day the Reverend Michael Beckworth seemed to be talking just to her and she joined the church that day. “There’s something in me that has always given me a sense of being guided, even through the rough patches.”
And get on with her life she certainly did. Her first encounter with the work of August Wilson was in 1989 when she appeared in the original mounting of “The Piano Lesson” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. She remembers proudly that Wilson himself was on hand for this production’s development and says that was a great honor for her. That same year, she did another Wilson play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
As she prepares for this new role in “Radio Golf,” she says she has begun reading all of Wilson’s 10-decade saga. “I’m reading all the plays in order. You just forget how profound they are. They speak to me of a black person in America. I know all those people. Real people in my family, in my life.” She applauds Wilson’s ability to tell people’s stories without judgment. “Everybody is doing what they think is right.” She relates to each character’s point of view.
Her soap opera apprenticeship was as Heather Dalton on “As the World Turns” from 1983 to ’86. However, she is probably most widely known for playing the character of Livia Frye on the soap opera “All My Children.” She originated the role in 1991, left the show in 1995, and came back in 2003. She now has a recurring role as the sharpest lawyer in town. At one point in her life, she actually wanted to be a lawyer and in 1995 enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago. She graduated in only two semesters with a BA degree and proceeded to start law school at Cal Western in San Diego.
Also in 1991, she originated the role of Sweet Anita in the “Jelly Roll Morton” musical “Jelly’s Last Jam” with Gregory Hines, which opened first in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. For this same role in the Broadway production the following year, she won the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. One of the authors of this piece was George C. Wolfe. Pinkins has been involved in a number of his projects including a dramatic part in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Public Theater and a go at classical theater with Shakespeare in Central Park as Mistress Ford in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” On Broadway in the year 2000, she appeared in “The Wild Party,” written and directed by Wolfe. He also wrote her very first nightclub act at Sweetwater’s in 1984.
Other Broadway credits include “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1995) and “Play On” (1997), the Duke Ellington musical.
Back again at the Public Theater, she originated the role of Caroline in the Tony Kuschner/Jenine Tesori musical “Caroline or Change.” A stirringly dramatic role, she played the maid in an affluent Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963, whose only meaningful relationships were with the appliances in her kitchen, and the tentative connections with the young son of the household. The reviews for her performance were unanimous raves. Again nominated for the Tony Award, this time for Leading Actress in a Musical, she lost to the green witch of the west (Idina Menzel).
Pinkins was playing Caroline in London when she received the call to do “Radio Golf.” “I’m such a gypsy. Don’t plan very much. When I was in London doing ‘Caroline,’ I had no plans but to do that then go back home to California. Then I got a call to do this. I’m sure God has something else planned for me.”
Her two younger children, Maija and Manuel, ages 10 and 7, respectively, are with her in Princeton and will also go along to Manhattan, the next stop for “Radio Golf.”
After “Radio Golf” Pinkins hopes to work on a concert show about strong and powerful American women. She says that she would love to play Medea, to perform in another Shakespeare play, and take a turn as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” For now she’s following her intuition to whatever she feels guided to do next. “Where do you want me to go? I ask the Spirit. Put me there.”
Her advice to all of us: “Stay present to your instincts because your instincts are always right for you.”
“Radio Golf,” through Sunday, April 8, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Drama by August Wilson is the sequel to “Gem of the Ocean.” For ages 12 and up. $40 to $53.