Holler If Ya Hear Me Tonya Pinkins Looks Back on the Long Road to Tony Glory
July 1st, 2014
by Josh Ferri
Tonya Pinkins, that delicious Broadway diva who gave us the ultimate shower/car/Marie’s Crisis singalong showstopper “Lot’s Wife,” is back on the boards in the powerful new musical Holler If Ya Hear Me. The Tony winner plays Mrs. Weston, the block’s matriarch who knows a thing or two about life on the hard streets, and she delivers big time reinventing the Tupac songs “Resist the Temptation/Dear Mama (Reprise).”
Pinkins made her Broadway debut in 1981 in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s super short-lived, big-time cult musical Merrily We Roll Along. (That’s her in the back there!)
Her next show, Jelly’s Last Jam won her a 1992 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in Musical. Following her win, Pinkins starred on Broadway in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Play On!, The Wild Party, Caroline, or Change, Radio Golf and most recently, A Time to Kill.
Let’s take a proper moment to acknowledge the Tony-nominated wonder that was her Caroline Thibodeaux.
And who could forget the very memorable off-Broadway appearances of the two-time Lortel Award winner?
For TV fans, Pinkins might be Heather Dalton on As The World Turns, Alama Matobo on 24 or Livia Frye on All My Children.
With a resume like this, BroadwayBox was super excited to hear from Ms. Pinkins about which credit she considers the game-changer, but we had no idea the wonderful theatrical story we were about to hear chronicling her journey in Jelly’s Last Jam.
Prior to doing Jelly’s Last Jam, I had really done the young ingénue part. And when I first auditioned—it was this last minute audition—I hadn’t read the script, then I got the part and read the whole script and realized, ‘Oh this is woman and I’ve never played a woman.’ I remembered all these women in my life who were like this woman Sweet Anita, and I didn’t know I had that in myself to play. Then when I went to Los Angeles to do it at the Taper, Patty Holley had done several workshops as Sweet Anita, and now she was in the ensemble and I was taking her part. It it was a really awkward and intimidating situation. And I was afraid to even try being a woman. I had ideas but no experience.
So for my first two weeks of rehearsal, I just did nothing but read, and at home I would dream up. And I thought to myself, ‘If I could just get to a run through, I could try out all my ideas I’ve been practicing at home and no one could stop me and tell me no. But if I try something and they go no, I’ll be too afraid to try again.’ So I was hanging on until that run through. But everyone in the room was looking at me like, ‘Why did you get this job. You’re terrible.’ And [director] George [C. Wolfe] later told me, that he had decided the day before the run through that he was going to fire me.
But I did the run through. I did all the things I’ve been thinking and everyone was completely shocked, and I thought ‘Ok, this is some good stuff.’ Then interestingly when I went on to do what I did, it was not a happy shock for people because they had written me off. They had built their performance around the lack of my performance. But now I had one.
Then when they came to New York, Gregory [Hines] had someone in mind that he wanted for it, and it wasn't me. So I had to go back in and audition again. And I wasn't willing at all to do what Gregory wanted me to do. He envisioned a far more sexualized performance than I was willing to do. And I remember the publicists for the show didn't think I was important, so they did no press on me at all. I had hired a publicist, and we would sit around and make up press releases and send them out for months…and nothing. But we kept sending them out, and I remember when I got nominated for the Drama Desk, suddenly people starting picking up on the press. I made People Magazine six weeks in a row. And then the Friday before the Tony’s, The New York Times said I wasn't going to win, so I said, ‘Oh well. This was a great time and I had fun.’ So winning was icing on the cake. I was in such shock I walked off stage and didn't recognize my cast who was in the wings getting ready to perform.
From this experience, I learned to trust my instincts. Prior to that I was unsure and afraid, and this just taught me I had to trust them; even going up against a big star like Gregory and just saying, ‘Nope, I’m trusting my instincts.’
Don’t miss seeing Tonya Pinkins on the Palace Theatre stage in the new musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me.