Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins had more than one good reason for accepting the role of Mame Wilks in the Broadway production of August Wilson's Radio Golf. "Not only is August the greatest playwright of the 20th Century, but my first professional play was The Piano Lesson at Yale Rep. To come full circle to do his last play on Broadway is quite an honor," she says. "Plus, this was the perfect offer to come back to Broadway after Caroline, or Change. Many musical projects have come my way since then, but it's hard to live up to that show."
Still, getting the proper handle on Mame -- who's both the wife of mayoral candidate/real estate developer Harmond Wilks (played by Harry Lennix) and a political speechwriter herself -- was a matter of trial and error for the actress. "She's the first professional black woman August ever wrote, and it's nice that he ended his career that way. But I didn't want to her to just be this controlling, bossy woman. We've seen that so many times and I just wasn't interested in playing that," she says. "Kenny Leon [the director] and I felt we wanted to focus on the love story. So I based Mame on the very sophisticated women I know who are working professionals but also stand by their men. I also think she's there to round Harmond out -- to show his humane side instead of his professional one."
Pinkins notes that finding the right tone for Mame extended to coming up with the perfect on-stage wardrobe. "We went through a lot of changes. She started out looking much more business-like, but then we realized the writing tells you that, and we needed to show the woman," says Pinkins. "I'm very happy with the dresses we came up with. Plus, after Caroline, I'm thrilled I get to look good. I want people to know I'm not some 50-year-old maid."
That 2004 musical remains a pivotal experience for Pinkins -- as is evidenced by the soon-to-be-released documentary Show Business which focuses in large part on the development of the show. But the actress particularly relishes the show's London production, in which she was the only member of the Broadway production to recreate her role. "They really got Caroline over there. But for them, it's not so much a racial story; it's the class differences that really resonated. They judge you by your accent, which is a whole other way to be prejudiced," she says. "And I had the time of my life in London, in part because it was the first time I lived somewhere that race wasn't an issue. I got to walk down the street as a beautiful woman instead of a beautiful black woman."
For nearly 25 years, daytime drama fans have watched James Reynolds play policeman Abe Carver on NBC's Days of Our Lives; but even his biggest admirers may not realize he's spent that same amount of time writing plays. On May 5, he brings a revised version of his popular work I, Too, Am America, in which he portrays such real-life heroes as actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson and cowboy Deadwood Dick, to the Fremont Centre in South Pasadena, California.
"Everything in this play is factual; I did a lot of research," he says. "I always loved American history, but I felt African-American history was misunderstood by everyone. For example, I grew up learning a lot about the history of the American West, but African-American soldiers were always ignored. When I began to read Buffalo Soliders, that was a revelation," he notes. In addition to Deadwood Dick, Reynolds' favorite character is the female abolitionist Sojourner Truth. "All I do is change my voice and inflection. I do about 25 characters, so it's impossible to do anything more physical. The most costume changing I do is just putting on a hat now and then. You really just want to stimulate people's imagination."
Reynolds says the show is about 50 percent different than its last incarnation six years ago. "The biggest change is how I talk about my family and my personal experiences. Now, they're sprinkled throughout the play rather than just at the end," he says. "The response to that part of the show was always overwhelmingly positive, and as I get a little older, I've become more willing to share things about my past."
TRULY, HADLEY, DEEPLY
Don't feel bad if you never heard of the real-life Grace O'Malley, the Irish chieftain whose story is told in the new Broadway musical The Pirate Queen. Neither did British theater star Hadley Fraser, who plays her (fictional) love interest, Tiernan. "I didn't know anything about her, but I had spent time in that part of Ireland before and it's breathtaking," he says. "So I'm not surprised that people became very interested in owning it and protecting it."
Fraser admits he would not have minded if Tiernan ended up more like another fictional pirate, Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Still, he's ultimately happy with his role -- even his character's undying devotion to Grace. "It's true, he thinks about Grace all of the time, but I try to show that he gets a wee bit angry and thinks about himself every once in a while too," he says. "I think the love triangle with Donal is now very well-fleshed out and I get to take out some of my anger on him. But what I really love is the image at the very end of myself, Grace, and Owen [her son with Donal] as this new family. Maybe if there's a sequel, we can tell more of their story."
The Pirate Queen marks Fraser's introduction to New York, and he's loving his new home. "I don't really feel homesick at all. Being on Broadway is extraordinary. It's great having people wait at the stage door and tell you how much they appreciate your work. We only get a wee bit of that in Britain," he says. "Plus, I love eating out, and I'm having a hard time finding any bad food over here. Fortunately, we're on the go for 2 ½ hours every night on stage and that keeps me in shape. But I am going to have to go back to the gym soon to make sure I fit in my costumes -- even if mine aren't as revealing as some of my castmates. That's one thing about our show. Visually, we have something for everyone."
GOOD NIGHT NEW YORK
Actors André de Shields and Wendell Pierce will be among the honorees at the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Annual Gala at Columbia University's Low Memorial Library on May 7. That same night, cabaret singer Karen Akers will be honored at the Singers Forum Benefit Gala at the Lighthouse, while fellow cabaret stars Bill Daugherty and Connie Pachl will join author Emma Brockes at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle for a special discussion of her new book What Would Barbra Do: How Musicals Changed My Life. Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Edward Hibbert, and Isabella Rossellini will be among the live narrators for Guy Maddin's silent film Brand Upon the Brain!, May 9-15 at Cinema Village East.
Jumping ahead to May 14, John Turturro, Katharine Borowitz, Michael Cumpsty, and Denis O'Hare will help honor the great Zoe Caldwell at Classic Stage Company's 3rd Annual Quiz Show; Matt Dillon, Lois Smith, and Lili Taylor will be among the stars on hand for Soho Rep's Spring Gala at 101 Riverviews; Broadway stars Donnie Kehr and Michael Lanning will participate in Wingspan Arts' Arts2Life benefit at B.B. Kings; and Nikki Renee Daniels and Sara Schmidt will host the New Voices concert, with special guest Frank Wildhorn at the Duplex.
Continuing to fast-forward, the very busy Liza Minnelli will perform a benefit concert at NJPAC on May 18; former Sopranos stars Vincent Pastore and Robert Funaro will appear in a benefit reading of Lamppost Reunion at the Hoboken Historical Museum on May 18 and 19; Marge Champion, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Uggams, and JoAnne Worley will be among the lovely ladies on hand to celebrate composer Jerry Herman on Sunday, May 20 at Encompass New Opera Theatre's Benefit Gala at the National Arts Club. The next night, May 21, Alec Baldwin, Frank Langella, Doris Roberts, and Marian Seldes will salute American Place Theatre founder Wynn Handman's 85th birthday at Wynn, Place & Show at the Hudson Theater, while Legally Blonde star Michael Rupert and Alison Fraser come together for the LGBT Center's In Concert series.
Finally, the stars have also been in the seats in New York's top theaters. Nathan Lane, Andrea Martin and TV's Top Design finalists Michael Adams and Goil Amornvivat at the April 26 opening of the Vineyard's American Fiesta; soon-to-be Sweet Charity star Paige Davis, Joanna Gleason and hubby Chris Sarandon at the April 27 performance of Legally Blonde; Pamela Myers at the April 29 performance of The Drowsy Chaperone (which celebrated its first anniversary on May 1); and Drowsy star JoAnne Worley, Teri Ralston, Alison Pill, Pablo Schreiber, Max Von Essen, Cass Morgan, Raul Esparza, and Boyd Gaines (watching wife Kathleen McNenny) at the April 30 performance of Coram Boy.