Tonya Pinkins :: A Diva, Absolutely!

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday June 2, 2013

Tonya Pinkins has been nominated and won several theater awards over the span of her career, including a Tony Award for "Jelly's Last Jam" (and also Tony-nominated for "Play On" and "Caroline, or Change").

She also had a long run on TV's "All My Children" as well as other television appearances, has appeared in many films, including the upcoming John Turturro film "Fading Gigolo, "alongside Woody Allen, and is a published author. Oprah Magazine named Pinkins, "One of the ten women in America who will take your breath away."

On June 3, Pinkins premieres her new cabaret show, "Unplugged," a look back at her career, as well as theater material she longs to put her stamp on.

EDGE spoke with the star about her career, her new cabaret show and her plans for the summer.

A law career?

EDGE: Is it true that you originally dropped out of college to pursue acting but then later returned to get a degree, and even do some graduate work and law school? By the looks of your resume, it doesn’t look like there is ever enough school for you!

Tonya Pinkins: I have always loved school. I could spend the rest of my life at school-I love learning, the academic environment, the discourse. I had a list of things I was looking for in a school and Carnegie Mellon came up with the most points. During my sophomore year, I got cast in "Merrily We Roll Along" during the winter break, but it wasn’t starting until the summer so I finished that year.

I ended up staying in New York and got some soap opera work, and then the Tony Award for "Jelly’s Last Jam." When I finally went back to school to finish my degree, it was for writing, at Columbia College in Chicago. I did one year of law school, but realized if I ever wanted to do anything with the law, I did not want to be a lawyer!

Tonya Pinkins: Time Out New York named you one of the top 25 all-time great divas on Broadway. What does the word "diva" mean to you?

EDGE: I think about that word a lot. I think it means a grand lady of the theater. Someone who is iconic in the kind of performances she delivers. These days, they’re trying to make theater into McDonald’s and Starbucks-selling to that audience that wants to see the same thing on Broadway that they saw in Las Vegas. In "Caroline, or Change" I gave a different performance every night.

EDGE: So are you a diva?

Tonya Pinkins: Absolutely!


EDGE: You have done so many things-theater, cabaret, television, film, writing, recording, teaching. How do you keep all those balls in the air?

Tonya Pinkins: I have a tremendous amount of energy and when I’m creative, it feeds off itself. There is no limit to it.

EDGE: And then at the bottom of your Wikipedia page, it says you’re a single mother of six children! As if that’s just a small thing!

Tonya Pinkins: Actually, four! They are now 25, 22, 16, and 14.

EDGE: So they well on their way to taking care of themselves.

Tonya Pinkins: Yes, they are!

EDGE: How is it that you got that wonderful endorsement from Oprah?

Tonya Pinkins: I absolutely have no idea. I’ve been on her show several times, but why she singled me out for that praise, I don’t know.

Favorite role

EDGE: What was your favorite role?

Tonya Pinkins: My favorite role was in "Play On," which not that many people saw. But I got to play comedy as well as drama, so it was really fun.

EDGE: On Broadway, you seem to have originated a lot of roles-

Tonya Pinkins: I’ve only originated roles!

EDGE: Wow, okay! Is there a role in a classic musical or play that you’d love to do?

Tonya Pinkins: Mama Rose in "Gypsy."

EDGE: You do a lot of teaching, and a few years back you wrote a self-help book. What is it about your life experience that you can offer to others?

Tonya Pinkins: I think the best guiding light of my experience is knowing that failure or loss doesn’t have to stop you. If you fear failing, why bother trying? I start out thinking that failure is inevitable. I can go on despite that. I learn from it.

EDGE: You’ve won every imaginable theater award there is. What does the Tony Award do for your career?

Tonya Pinkins: Well, it gets put in front of your name forever. To those who know what it is, it means you’re "the real deal." It got me into a lot of rooms that I wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise, as in private auditions. [Laughs] For some projects, having a Tony-winner puts your brilliance on their stupidity!

A lot of diva numbers

EDGE: Last year, we both had a landmark birthday, turning 50. How did that feel?

Tonya Pinkins: Fantastic! I celebrated for an entire week. I realized I had been an adult longer than I had been a child, so I could no longer blame anybody else for my problems. I can do whatever I want! But also, if I have projects I want to do, I’d better get to doing them.

EDGE: What are some of those?

Tonya Pinkins: A whole bunch of books, fiction and non-fiction. Writing is my first love, but you need quiet time to get it done. I’m trying to figure out how to do that. Cabaret is interesting. If you do it right, you can make enough money in a couple days that would take six months Off-Broadway to make! I’m hoping I can travel the world doing cabaret shows. Cabaret is also a writing project. You have to tell a story.

EDGE: What can we expect from your "Unplugged" show at Joe’s Pub on June 3?

Tonya Pinkins: I’m still putting it together! It will be about my history in the theater as well as shows I’d still like to do. I wasn’t going to do anything from "Merrily We Roll Along" because my part was rather small, but someone found a letter I wrote to Hal Prince after the show closed, which was pretty amazing, so I have to include something from that. I am going to do "Rose’s Turn." Also "The Ladies Who Lunch." I don’t know how a little black girl in Chicago came to relate to that, but I’ve been singing that song since I was nine years old. There will be a lot of diva numbers!

EDGE: Anything else coming up?

Tonya Pinkins: I’ll be part of the Breaking Through Barriers Festival in June. It features plays about disabilities, and includes these incredible actors with disabilities. I’m also doing "The Life and Times of Ethel Waters," another cabaret piece, for the Barrington Stage Company on June 8th and 9th. There are similarities in our history. And then the John Turturro film. He was a lot of fun; very fluid, with a lot of improvisation.

EDGE: Wow, I am inspired. I can’t wait to see your show.

Tonya Pinkins: Great! Thank you!

For tickets to see Tonya Pinkins on June 3, visit For more about her upcoming dates this summer, visit her website.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).