INTERVIEW: Tonya Pinkins Goes to the Storefront Church

The Tony Award winner discusses her new role in John Patrick Shanley’s play and her future career plans.

Tonya Pinkins
(© Tristan Fuge)
Tonya Pinkins
(© Tristan Fuge)

The past 12 months has afforded Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins a wealth of professional opportunities, including double-duty last summer in Shakespeare in the Park, and critically applauded roles in Kristen Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar (which earned her a Lucille Lortel Award) and Katori Hall’s Hurt Village.

Now, she’s focusing on her current gig as the heartfelt Jessie Cortez in John Patrick Shanley’s new drama Storefront Church at the Atlantic Theater Company. Pinkins recently chatted with TheaterMania about working on this play — in which she gets to demonstrate a bit of her vocal chops as well as her enormous talent — and her career.

THEATERMANIA: You have said that you enjoy taking on projects that hold meaning for you. How did Jessie fit it in to that?
TONYA PINKINS: Jessie wants to starts a church, but what she doesn’t know is when she goes to the bank, she’s going to get hurt more than helped. I even had my own experience with the whole mortgage situation. I was able to get a house myself when I wasn’t able to afford it, and that felt like a miracle for me. And then I lost that house. Trying to reconcile that is something I still wrestle with to this day.

TM: John Patrick Shanley enjoys delving into the underlying questions of religion and society. Has working on this play affected your own beliefs?
TP: When I came to the play, I had my own theories about the whole mortgage crisis, but actually working with him on the play was the first time that it congealed to me that there was a larger thing going on. Our society has moved away from work and family as being extensions of one another. We moved into this profit thing as the corporation, which really doesn’t have a face on it. There’s this elaborate scheme designed to overvalue properties and give faulty loans to people. The value of an American dream and of owning an American home doesn’t even exist anymore. I’m seeing this undermining of the entire basis of what America was made on.

TM: You and your co-star Giancarlo Esposito worked together 30 years ago in Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway. Has it been a fun reunion?
TP: It has been really special to get to work with him, because my major scene is with him and it’s like this connection from that time in the past is really strong. I find watching him on stage is such a master class. When you’re working with a good actor, it’s like great sex.

TM: One of the characters in Storefront Church asks, “What do you think makes somebody great?” How would you answer that question?
TP: That’s something I’ve been wrestling with, even as of today. I don’t think it’s simple. For me, a great person may not succeed at all that they desire, but they do as little harm as possible, and they do as much good as possible. They leave things better than they were when they came. They are conscious of how they affect everything that will be long past when they are around to experience it.

TM: Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets?
TP: I spent most of my career trying not to be an artist. For most of my time as an artist, I have felt like I wasn’t good enough. I went to law school briefly. I even went back to college 15 years after my first Broadway show. I have always thought, “Oh yeah, there are other people who perform. You’re smart, you got good grades, you need to go do something else.” I think I’ve reached this point where it’s like, “You are an artist, you’ve always been an artist, you cannot do any of those sit around, 9-to-5 jobs.” I wish I had figured that out earlier, and had given more time to creating more of the things that are in my head, because my imagination is just always going. I want to support myself and my own creativity more going forward with however much time I have left.

TM: What are some of the ideas floating around in your head?
TP: I have a solo piece that I’ve been working on with Rebecca Taichman, and we’ve been doing some wild things. I’m interested in what is reality and what is not, and the way it’s currently conceived. I go back to the time and place before we were born — all while on stage. You watch a character in the moment of death, regressing, because they say that in that moment of death your whole life flashes before you. I’m trying to have that happen on stage.

TM: What else is on your plate right now?
TP: I’ve also been writing a lot of plays, and I am trying to encourage my daughter’s creativity by trying to create a music theater piece with her between a mother and her daughter. And I’m going to start doing some concerts. I’ll be at 54 Below in August. I’ve been thinking about singing a lot, and this has been a nice little taste back into it.

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Storefront Church

Closed: June 24, 2012