Tonya Pinkins and the 'Mother Courage' Debacle

Tonya Pinkins and the 'Mother Courage' Debacle

Chris Peterson

This past Thursday, it was announced that actress Tonya Pinkins would be resigning from the Classic Stage Company's production of Mother Courage and Her Children while the show is in midst of previews before its opening on Jan 5th. 

In a complete statement posted online, Ms. Pinknis said the following: 

Who Loses, Who Thrives When White Creatives Tell Black Stories?

The year 2015, saw the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlsMatter, both movements helmed by powerful, fearless Black women. In 2016 I'm starting #BlackPerspectivesMatter.

Twice this year (but too many times in my career) my perspective as a Black woman was dismissed in favor of portraying the Black woman, through the filter of the White gaze. Regrettably, I must exit Classic Stage Company's Mother Courage.

When Black bodies are on the 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.

CSC's truncated version (an hour has been cut) eliminates Mother Courage and her children's backstory, the use of her cart, and much of Brecht's brilliant commentary on war. Mother Courage is the King Lear in the classical cannon of female roles. Not since Caroline, or Change, ten years ago, have I had a role of this caliber. 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.

Brecht's drama follows Mother Courage, a women who supports herself and her children by selling goods to warring armies from a cart she drags through the battle zones. Along the way, all three of her children are killed because of the war. Mother Courage is the epitome of every poor, undocumented, battered, trafficked and immigrant women hustling to provide for her family however she must.

It's been a decade since my talent has matched the material - I thought. However, it was not relayed to me until the final tech rehearsal that the vision for this Mother Courage (the Black Mother Courage in an African war) was of a delusional woman trying to do the impossible. 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?

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 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?

This spring, in Rasheeda Speaking, I was the only Black American woman in the room. Does this matter when portraying a Black perspective? Absolutely! The play purported to be about a Black woman's struggles working in a White medical office. But for the joy of performing nightly with Dianne Wiest, Patricia Connolly and Darren Goldstein, and the talk-backs I orchestrated with Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Professor James Peterson and many others, it was a soul-murdering experience. It is debilitating, explaining to non-Black people, day in and out, that their conceptions of Black people are not only inaccurate but dehumanizing and offensive.

I won an award for playing Jaclyn in Rasheeda Speaking. Months later, people still call out "Rasheeda" when complimenting me on my performance. What they innocently forget, but I am reminded of with each acknowledgement, is that "Rasheeda" was elucidated, in Jaclyn's climactic monologue in the play, as the new word for "Nigger." So who is speaking?

Despite Brecht's title, Mother Courage was not the star of this production. 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?

Brecht did not write a delusional woman. He wrote a woman who seizes power at every turn, who forces her way through Hell, and who continues in spite of every opposing force. My Mother Courage was left speechless, powerless, history-less and even cart-less. Why must images of Black women be held hostage in cages of White and/or patriarchal consciousness?

I and many other artists of color have benefitted from having honorary White status bestowed upon us for our work. This status allows us to work alongside the best in the business and to be treated as equals. It is a daily struggle to partake of this status while straining to maintain integrity and authenticity to our own culture. Yet this status is often stripped when we are asked to portray our own people.

I am grateful to Olympia Dukakis, who has played Mother Courage seven times, for attending an early preview and giving me the permission to put my ferocity back into the role. I had not realized that the shame I was feeling was the result of having my "creative c—k," my "virtuostic vagina" chopped up every day. The backlash from my appropriate creative turn was immediate. One crew member complained "I just can't control her."

Am I a dog or a slave to be misled so as to be controlled in my artistic expression?

I was even told that the cuts related to Brecht estate rights and permissions associated with our transposition to the Congo. So I contacted the attorney to the Brecht estate to fight for the integrity of the text that Brecht wrote. The attorney assured me that changing the Thirty Years War references to Congo War references was acceptable to the estate, and that all such matters were artistic decisions between artist and director. Well, not this artist.

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.

I recall reading, Tony Kushner's translation of Mother Courage, which was sent to entice me to accept the role. The pinnacle of my career has been Caroline, or Change. Caroline's power reigned on every page. So I know what that power feels like, and this is not it. CSC's "Mcdraft" was not even from the Kushner translation.

Why, in 2015, in the arts, is there a need to control the creative expression of a Black woman?

As we begin the new year, I wish for White theater creatives to have the humility to recognize that their perspectives alone are insufficient when portraying Black women and all "others"; that their manufactured fears put false Black images on the stage. I believe this allows real Black people to be destroyed, in the world.

As we enter 2016, the collective White creative community has a responsibility to bring as many "others" into the room, both onstage and offstage, before, during and after decisions are made. Only then will the beauty of global humanity be heard, seen, and finally understood, so that the truth wipes away the misconceptions and misappropriations that cause the fear which foments violence around the globe.

The world can no longer afford to have artistic visions of all White worlds because they simply do not exist. I want the theater to look like the city streets I walk on. That is the theater I aspire to participate in, one where #OtherPerspectivesMatter and are respected and reflected.

I am contractually obligated to perform in #CSCMotherCourage through January 3, 2016.


In response to this statement, CSC artistic director Brian Kulick stated: 

Let me begin by saying I have great respect for Tonya Pinkins both as a theatre artist and theatre activist and 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 impulse but reached two different vantage points. Tonya has articulated her point, let me try to articulate mine:

I had a basic question that I started this process with: Can you treat a Brecht play like we now treat a Shakespeare play? In other words, is a Brecht play as open as a Shakespeare text where you can set it in another time and place and see how the play speaks through the lens of that new setting? It seemed like the most direct analogy for a play like Mother Courage would be to set it in Central Africa in this century. The next question became could you keep the Brecht text as it is and make a transplantation without too much interference with the adaptation? What would it tell us? This added another layer of experience to watching Mother Courage. The result, for me, is that the play becomes haunted by three powerful ghosts: the ghost of the Thirty Years War (where the original version is set), the ghost of the Second World War (that prompted Brecht to write the play) and the ghost of what is still happening in the Congo today. These cumulative hauntings began to say something about war with a capital "W." It also allowed us to use the production as a way of reminding audiences that even though the plight of the Congo does not occupy the front pages of our newspapers, it is an on-going conflict that is still far from over and can use our attention and support.

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. In his notes he tells us:

"Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance or what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert."

Tonya objected to my use of the term "delusional" and we reworked the very ending of the play toward an image, which spoke to her idea of Mother Courage as "survivor." I was pleased with the final result. 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.


Tonya Pinkins in Mother Courage and Her Children  Photo: Joan Marcus

Tonya Pinkins in Mother Courage and Her Children  Photo: Joan Marcus

So what we obviously have here is a extreme case of creative differences leading to the exit of an actor. It also further serves as an example of a communication and collaborative breakdown between actor and director.  I know there must be college professors chomping at the bits to discuss this with their students. 

While the story of an actor quitting a production right before opening night is nothing new, some of us still remember MTC's Rose's Dilemma, those involved here are being a bit more candid about what really happened. 

Actor Michael Potts, who is also appearing in Mother Courage said the following on his Facebook page: 

“I’ve tried to avoid this, but I see things spiraling out of control. Two issues are being conflated. The first, ‪#‎BlackPerspectivesMatter‬, in which she is completely correct and I wholeheartedly support. The polemic she sets forth in her incredibly well composed statement on race and sex in the theater, is spot on. The second, the Mother Courage rehearsal process is pure hyperbole.

“The question of Mother Courage being delusional (inelegantly put by the director, for certain) was brought up during our very first week of table work. The director was referring to Brecht’s own writing about the character. As he put it in more elegant fashion and repeatedly stated during the entire rehearsal process, Mother Courage is a tragic character because she never learns. War teaches her nothing.

“Actors know very well that there is nothing incongruous about a director holding one view of the character and the actor holding a different view. Directors normally defer to the actor in nearly all cases. Hopefully, out of this creative tussle, something transcendent appears. Such was the attempt in our production.

“Make no mistake, Tonya ran our production from the start. She was Momma Courage, yes “momma”, her request and everyone complied including the Brecht estate. Throughout the rehearsal period, when she wanted to make a change, any change, it was allowed.

“Also, actors are aware that even during technical rehearsal and previews, performances are still evolving and subject to change. However, we also hope by that time, after weeks of rehearsal (4 weeks in this case), certain things are beginning to set up. Though, it’s still possible, wholesale changes in blocking and script are normally less frequent at this stage. Therefore, it is also expected that when an actor decides to make a major change in dialogue and/or blocking that involves fellow actors, that there’s a little friendly heads up if not rehearsal given to those actors. Unfortunately, Tonya didn’t get around to doing that. Still, every actor rolled with it. The director wishing to protect the whole has the job of addressing the situation for the sake of everyone involved in telling the story.

“Allow me to address the “fur incident”. This was in the script from day one of rehearsal. There were no problems or questions about this part of the scene through 4 weeks of rehearsal. None. We move to the theater. Costumes are added to the technical process of mounting the play. The scene proceeds and only then is there a conflict about a fur. Tonya states her intention to take the fur and explains it’s what Brecht wrote. This is true…in another translation,-not the one we’d been rehearsing for 4 weeks. The actor wearing the fur defends his position grounded in the text we’re working from. Tonya again asserts it’s what Brecht wants and that she intends to take it. The actor defers to the director. Compromises are immediately offered to resolve the issue. None were suitable to Tonya. The debate is tabled and both Tonya and the other actor confer with the director privately. The decision is reached to do the scene as written. During that evenings performance, Tonya takes the fur. The actor has no choice but to let it stand. She is Mother Courage, after all. Too long a story, shortened, both director and actor acquiesce to Tonya’s choice. Tonya takes the fur for two additional performances then announces that she won’t do it anymore. No explanation. Why was it so essential that a week and a half debate was required? Why after 2 performances, was it now “suddenly” not essential? Was it really about Brecht’s intention? What was this conflict/demand really about? Such was the process of this Mother Courage. I witnessed time and again our director bend over backwards, to the point of spinelessness to try to appease Tonya.

Anyone who has worked with Tonya knows that no one silences her. “No one puts baby in the corner!” Tonya is a force. Her brilliance is clear, her intelligence evident by her release referenced in this post.

“Of course, there were honest creative differences as in any other creative endeavor. However, no one was ever muzzled, rebuked, rebuffed, made voiceless or enslaved.

“Put simply, Tonya wanted to move in an entirely different direction once the show was already rehearsed and set. It was too late in the game to re-rehearse a concept.

“Unfortunately, these statements have led people to conclude that the play is a complete mess, that those of us still involved are left with something lesser and by extension we are lesser actors and a director and theater company’s reputation are being unfairly trashed. I’ve read people already conclude that the director is a racist and sexist. You would be mistaken on all counts. Though, there are justifiable critiques of this production, none of them rise to the level of what’s being insinuated.”

Was this a case of artistic castration or an actress quitting because she didn't get what she wanted? Sadly, it's probably both. 

So where do I side on this issue? As a director myself, I view the rehearsal process as a collaborative period where everyone's voice should be heard and considered. I believe that every actor must feel 100% confident and knowledgeable when it comes to portraying their characters. In the same regard, I believe the director's vision must also be seen through as well. 

In this case, roles of the actor and director were blurred and then forgotten. No one, other than the people in the rehearsal room, know for sure what broke down here. Not me, not Playbill and especially not Larry Kramer.

In the end, I feel bad for the rest of the cast, that have to be wondering what's truly going to happen with their production and the audiences who aren't going to see Ms. Pinkins take on the greatest female role in history. 

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