Tonya Pinkins
Tonya Pinkins
(© Andrew Jones)
Tonya Pinkins enjoys poking fun at herself whether on stage or off. The Tony Award-winning actress didn't get to do this when starring on Broadway in Caroline, or Change or Jelly's Last Jam — which is why she loves cabaret. Humorous, fresh, and brand new, her June 3rd concert, Tonya Pinkins Unplugged at Joe's Pub, is set to be a unique, personal experience with twists on Broadway favorites. Tonya spoke with TheaterMania about everything from creating the concert to playing Woody Allen's lover in his new film.

What do you have planned for your Joe's Pub concert?

I'm going through my career in the theater: shows I've done, audition songs, shows I've wanted to do and didn't get, shows nobody would ever cast me in…There will be a lot of showstopping numbers. I'm probably going to do songs from Wicked, Gypsy, The King and I, Little Shop of Horrors, and Dreamgirls, amongst others. I've never done the songs that will be featured in this show...other than the songs that were in shows that I was actually in. I am literally learning new songs.

Why is this show described as "wicked, raw, hilarious, and in-your-face"?

As I've gotten older I've gotten much more comfortable sharing very personal things. Being an older woman comes with some changes that I find really humorous, and I like to have people laugh with me, either because they have gone through it, or they're on their way to it. I've had this tragic love life that I love to make fun of. Anything's possible in cabaret. The audience will certainly hear stories that you wouldn't have heard unless you'd been an intimate friend of mine.

How did you come to develop so much confidence in yourself?

In high school I wore this hot-pink asymmetrical skirt and top to prom. I went with this friend of mine who was a gay guy, and I remember that in my prom picture I was in a dip, while everybody else was doing the classic pose. All I knew was that I didn't want a picture that looked like everybody else's. It was scandalous! (Laughs) I think I've always had this drum that I marched to that was different from everybody else's. I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to fit in with the crowd, and it never worked for me.

Discuss the thought process behind three of your favorite song choices for your show at Joe's Pub.

I'll be doing "Ladies Who Lunch" [from Company]. I've been singing it since I was seven years old. It's a song that I've related to since I was a little kid — I know that sounds strange, but it's a favorite of mine. Another is "Portrait," from A…My Name is Alice. It's about mothers and daughters and the complications in that relationship. I have a complicated relationship with my daughter and my mother. I'm also doing "It Was a Very Good Year." I happen to be a very good friend of Eartha Kitt's. I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I can sing that song. I love the way she did it. It's my way of paying homage to her, and also it's just true about my own life.

People might be surprised to learn that you got in front of the camera recently to play Woody Allen's lover in the film Fading Gigolo.

John Turturro wrote and directed it. John told me that in the film there's this old guy who has this twenty-years-younger black woman with four kids who lives with him. She kind of runs the show. That's how John wrote it, and then he hired me to be in it. I've got four kids, so it was kind of wild. At one point there's this scene where Woody buys me a couch, and it gets delivered on the street, so of course there's a huge crowd. Woody has no makeup and hair because you can't touch him. And I'm like, "John, you wrote to give him a full body hug! Is he going to let me touch him?" He said, "Just do it, just do it, it'll be funny!" And I'm like, "You do it, because it'll be funny to you when he slaps the shit out of me." We did a bunch of takes, and then just kept improvising. It was just really fun to play with him.

Do you set long-term goals for yourself, or are you more content with being in the moment?

I'm doing Theater Breaking Through Barriers in June, a two-week one-act festival with people who are differently-abled. I'm doing some new work on my Ethel Waters piece, which I'm taking up to Barrington Stage. I'm going down to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, where I'm the co-chair this year. Then I'm going to do another Unplugged concert. It will have a lot more contemporary, pop, rock, and soul music in it. I'm trying to do more singing because I really love it. I haven't gotten to do enough of it lately. I haven't done a Broadway musical in a long, long time. So I told myself that I'm just going to travel around the world, sing, and share my stories.

You're so open at your shows. Is there anything left that people wouldn't know about you?

I don't think people know how very shy I actually am! I have developed a persona that is only for performances. I think that's why I wear lots of wigs and things — it's how I protect who I am. I'm actually a really private, shy person.