Tonya Pinkins on Acting, Directing, and Empowering Women

Interview with Tonya Pinkins by Phil Bolsta

Watch Tonya Pinkins’ interview:


Welcome, Tonya. Thank you for joining us today.

Hey, Phil, thank you for having me.

Allow me to introduce you. Tonya Pinkins is an American actor, director, author, educator, and activist, and a multiple Tony Award nominee, winning in 1992 for Jelly's Last Jam. Tonya, you hosted The Shift Network's #MeToo Dialogues in July, and in the November mid-terms, more than 100 women were elected to Congress. Clearly, 2018 was a year of empowerment for women. Do you expect to see more progress in 2019 and beyond?

I think that we are always evolving towards higher and greater organization, so yes, I do. I fully expect women to continue to find their strength and take their place in leadership in every area of life.

"Truth and Reconciliation of Womyn" by Kim Sykes

I know you're excited about the “Truth and Reconciliation of Womyn” project [a collection of 10-minute plays], which launched in November in New York. Can you tell us about that event and what we can look forward to in 2019?

In January of last year, I got this vision about asking women what had harmed them and how they would envision the healing of any of those harms. I sent out a call for submissions to writers that I knew and writers who were recommended, trying to search as far and wide as possible for the most diverse group of women and particularly women whose voices are not frequently heard. I now have a collection of about 16 plays, two songs, some other plays that I'm expecting, and songs I'm expecting.

We had a reading last February 5th at The Commons in Brooklyn... full house. We read five of the plays and did two of the songs. They are all plays by and about women and ways in which women have participated in harming one another, but each play models how that fissure, that wound can be healed. It's a very uplifting evening. We always use a pre- and a post-questionnaire to get people in the mindset of, Do you owe amends to anybody? Does anybody owe amends to you? How likely is that going to happen or what would it take for that to happen? Because I hope that these plays begin to model ways for all of us to think about making amends or asking for forgiveness or forgiving as something that's easy to do rather than something that traditionally drama, because it is drama, makes that look very difficult. I want people to begin to think about that as just fun, just a fun part of life.

We'll be at the #HealMeToo Festival on March 31st, April 7th, and April 14th. That'll be at the IRT Theater in New York. Then I just got an LMCC [Lower Manhattan Cultural Council] Creative Engagement grant to help produce the full production at the 14th Street “Y” in July of this year.

Truth and Reconciliation of Womyn cast:
Back row (l-r): Nandita Shenoy, Mary Teresa Archbold, Akiko Hiroshima, Ako Dachs, Yolanne Bavan, Tonya Pinkins, Teana David,
Kristine M. Reyes, Carmen Ruvera, Caridad Svich
On floor (l-r): Carmen Lobue, Rachel Holmes, Kimye Corwyn, Kim Sykes

That sounds really uplifting and empowering and enlivening. I know what that feels like, just immersing yourself in a project you're so passionate about. It's wonderful, just coming alive. I understand you've got lots of other irons in the fire; a cabaret... you're writing a new play...

I did my cabaret in December, and I just came back from doing NCIS: New Orleans, and I'm about to shoot another episode of Madam Secretary. I was in Antigua last week shooting a short... sort of a short film version of a larger feature film project that I'm working on with my collaborator, Kiara C. Jones and Rebecca Scheckman. We're frantically cutting the short that we shot last week together to submit to a particular festival tomorrow. I'm going to continue to do this work around... it's called Bequest. It is a story of someone who is looking outside themselves for their strength. Over the journey of the film, they find that the strength is in themselves.

Boy, that all sounds really exciting. Do you enjoy the TV work?

I do. I really love working on television. I've done so many years in the theater. Television is kind of an opportunity to learn a new skill set. It's a lot of fun for me to get to be on a TV set and practice new things. I like to learn.

Can you bring us up to date on any other projects, any other theater, film, TV?

It's NCIS, Madam Secretary. I'm on hold for another series. It's pilot season, so I'm auditioning three or four times a week. Really most of my energy has been going into writing this feature and Bequest because it's 16 plays. They're 10-minute plays... figuring out... and I'm raising money for producing the full shows and then trying to figure out how to cast 20 plays. That's a lot of energy that I am pleased to have the challenge of putting that all together. I'm actually bringing in some new directors for the #HealMeToo Festival, Kat Yen, who's up at Yale, and Lili Stiefel will be directing two of the evenings. I'll do the first Sunday and they'll do the next two Sundays.

I've been doing a lot of shadowing in television, wanting to move into directing television. I'll be spending June in Austin, Texas, shadowing with Michael Satrazemis who's the producer/director of both Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. I will be shadowing him as a director in June. I'm a new Fulbright Scholar. I'm going to Russia in April to teach at the Theater Institute in Yekaterinburg, which is the third largest city in Russia.

Wow. That's a lot going on, and a lot of interesting things going on. Not just things but very stimulating, challenging things and the logistics of some of that sounds like it's overwhelming at times. Wonderful. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Tonya. It feels like we're on the cusp of entering a new era of great promise in all sorts of ways. Best of luck with your theater and film projects.

Thank you so much, Phil. I appreciate you giving me the time to talk. It's a good time in the world right now. That Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times”... we definitely are living in an interesting time. I think it's just an opportunity for everything to explode into shared wealth and shared prosperity for more people on the planet. I think when you look at a book like Factfulness, which is written by [Hans Rosling, a Swedish Professor of International Health], our regular media doesn't tell us the truth — that as bad as things are, things are better in the world for more people in the world than they have ever been in history. I like to keep that in mind.

Well said.

Click here to read Tonya Pinkins' earlier article in Catalyst:

Tonya Pinkins is a multi-award winning American actor, director, author, educator and activist. Tonya, who’s been nominated for three Tony awards for nine broadway shows — and won a Tony for Jelly’s Last Jam — has appeared on Broadway in Caroline or Change, A Time To Kill, The Wild Party, and the original Merrily We Roll Along.

Tonya is known for two daytime soap operas, As The World Turns and All My Children, as well as for film and episodic television including Disney’s Enchanted, Law and Order, Army Wives, 24, 11/22/63, Nurse Jackie, Madam Secretary, and as Ethel Peabody in Gotham and Scandal.

Tonya is an essayist and the author of Get Over Yourself: How to Drop the Drama and Claim The Life You Deserve. As an educator, Tonya has taught all over the world — at America University in Beirut, Old Globe London, the National Theater, Yale, ACT, UT Austin, Rutgers, UCSD, USD, University of Louisville, City College in New York, and New York University.

Tonya has made two albums, appeared on several other cast albums, and directed the short film, What Came After. Tonya’s personal training program, "The Actorpreneur Attitude," has been taught at corporations, schools, and Omega Institute.


Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 4: Black History Month