Tonya Pinkins knows she has a reputation for being difficult. In fact, when director Robert O'Hara wanted Pinkins to star in his Off-Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Pinkins knew what people were saying about her. “People were trying to tell him not to hire me,” she says.
Since 2015, though Pinkins has gotten offers to work in regional theatre and in film and television, she has not been offered any theatre work in New York City. For a Tony winner, that’s a glaring oversight. But Pinkins knows why: It’s because ever since she very publicly withdrew from an Off-Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children in 2015, she has been labeled with the Scarlet D of entertainment: difficult.
For her part, Pinkins is fine with it. “I'm not going to sit in a room with bullshit,” she remarks with characteristic bluntness, adding that if she sees instances of racism or if she doesn’t agree with a director’s artistic choices, “I get out of the room. Or I bring it up, and we're gonna have to address it, or not. So I'm the crazy difficult bad one, because that's my truth.” She also doubts that the same critiques, the same blacklisting, would be levied at her if she were a man.
The latest chapter of Pinkins not dealing with “bullshit”: her recent open letter to New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green, for his mixed review of A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater, where Pinkins currently stars as Lena Younger.
A Raisin in the Sun is considered a classic of American theatre. It is about a Black family living in Chicago. When the family patriarch dies tragically, the family has to decide what to do with the payout from his life insurance: The son, Walter Lee (played in the revival by Francois Battiste), wants to use the money to open up a liquor store. His mother, Lena (played by Pinkins), wants to use the money to buy a house and to pay for her daughter Beneatha’s (Paige Gilbert) medical school.
Spoiler alert (because the play premiered in 1959): They get the house, in an all-white neighborhood. And, Walter learns to put the needs of his family above his own. It’s all the recipes for a happy ending, right? That was the case for previous productions of A Raisin in the Sun, and the film. But not in this new revival. According to Green’s review in the New York Times, “Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic ends on a note of cautious optimism. Its latest incarnation, at the Public Theater, does not.” Despite the tepid review, from the Times and other outlets, A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater was extended twice and is now playing until November 20.
According to Pinkins, the Times review made it impossible for the production to move beyond the Public Theater, saying, “You can't have a future life without the Times.” She does admit that there had only been dreams of Broadway, not any concrete offers.
But Pinkins is emphatic that while Green’s name is in the title, the Medium post she wrote wasn’t just about Green. Pinkins saw the comments on social media from strangers telling her that this new treatment of Raisin wasn’t what Hansberry intended, that Pinkins didn’t understand the play. To which Pinkins remarks rhetorically, “How do they know what [Lorraine] intended?”
Imani Perry, who wrote the Hansberry biography Looking for Lorraine, wrote in The Atlantic that the new production is “the closest to Lorraine’s vision that I have ever seen.” Pinkins says that according to Perry, Hansberry envisioned Raisin “as a protest play,” saying, “She was very frustrated with people thinking of it as this assimilationist ‘any family could be this family’ kind of play. She said, ‘That's not what I was writing at all.’ That's not what she intended.” In real life, Hansberry’s family also moved into a white neighborhood, and then they were run out of it after a neighbor threw a brick through their window.
Similar to what happened to Alice Childress—whose play Trouble in Mind was optioned for Broadway in the 50s, on the condition she took out some of the play’s scathing racial critiques—Pinkins says that Hansberry had to soften Raisin’s edges in order for it to be commercially successful. Hansberry gave the Youngers a happy ending when her own life was much more tragic.
“She had to take a backseat to the men and the powers that be who were making it a success in the world. And, certainly, because they did that, it's why it's still getting done today,” says Pinkins. “We're grateful that it happened, but that doesn't mean we can't go back and look at what she intended and what wasn't possible in the time that she lived.” The original version of Hansberry’s screenplay of the Raisin film is also available to purchase, which is arguably more political than the version that ended up on screen.
Even Green mentioned in his review that O’Hara was “right to reimagine the genre expectations of Raisin. It’s what we do with all classics, not because they require it but because they can handle it.”
Pinkins grew up in a working class family in Chicago, where Raisin is set, and to her, Walter was never the hero of the play—it was the women. “How has anybody ever turned it into a play about a Black man's dream?” she remarks. “Walter Lee is this misogynist drag on these women. And in the end, he really only succumbs to what they always knew and wanted in the first place.”
To her, during a moment when “women’s autonomy is being threatened” and where segregation continues to be an issue (especially in Chicago), to have a play where the women are subservient and satellites to a Black man was irresponsible: “Being in this production and seeing that these women are so vital and three dimensional … To me [Raisin has] never been about a woman who loves her son so much that she just sacrifices herself and everybody else to save him. No. And, I don't want any women to have to be that ever, ever, ever, ever again.”
In this new production, the audience sees the effects that racism, misogyny, and betrayal have on Lena—Pinkins suggested to O'Hara that her character suffer a stroke and there be a noticeable palsy after. O'Hara agreed, and this artistic choice gives the play's happy ending a clarifying dose of reality and shows the audience that Black women are not impervious to pain. That acting decision was unfavorably remarked upon by critics.
But these days, Pinkins isn’t too worried about what other people say about her. She’ll even fight back sometimes. After a lifetime in entertainment, she doesn’t feel the need to silence herself anymore. And, it wouldn’t be a good example for artists who are coming up, who have to continue the fight.
“I do sometimes feel that is my vocation, to be a fire-breathing dragon. I honor it, but sometimes I'm like, ‘Why me? Why do I have to do this? The person who does that always gets killed!’” she remarks with a wry chuckle. “This is the last chapter. I'm done. I've had a great life. I've had great opportunities. All I have left to do is: How can I leave the world better for my having been in it?”