Since withdrawing from Classic Stage Company’s off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and releasing an open letter expressing her anger and frustration with the way she was disempowered as a Black woman during the rehearsal process, Tonya Pinkins has been subjected to an onslaught of dismissal and mockery from theatre professionals and the public alike. She has been accused of pulling the race card and the gender card, of being unprofessional, of throwing a temper tantrum.
Hate sites have popped up on the Internet, referring to Pinkins as a “delusional, narcissistic abuser” and an “entitled and controlling bully” because of her decision to leave the show. Pinkins’s castmate Michael Potts publicly rebutted her allegations of sexism and racism, chalking the whole thing up to “creative differences” between Pinkins and the show’s director Brian Kulick.
Reactions to Pinkins’s departure have essentially condemned her for being an Angry Black Woman. For speaking out against a rehearsal process and production she found demeaning and destructive, Pinkins has been vilified in a manner that a man, (particularly a white man) speaking out in a similar way would be highly unlikely to face, and that a white woman would face to a certainly lesser extent.
“When a white woman is on the receiving end of sexist nonsense … it’s a given that the mainstream feminist movement will back her up. This is not the case with Black women…”
Further, when a white woman is on the receiving end of sexist nonsense or is attacked for being “bossy” or a “bitch,” it’s a given that the mainstream feminist movement will back her up. This is not the case with Black women, whose experiences of sexism and racism often fall through the cracks of both feminist and anti-racist movements.
Given the outrageous backlash that has come down against Pinkins since her letter was released, it’s no wonder that so many choose to stay silent about the sexism and racism they experience in the theatre industry and throughout the entertainment business. Pinkins’s decision to go public with her reasons for leaving the CSC production and to take control over her own narrative is truly remarkable in light of the consequences she likely knew she would face for doing so.
Why is it so difficult to believe people when they tell us about their experiences of disempowerment and subjugation? Specifically, why is it so difficult to trust women of color when they speak out about their intersectional experiences of oppression? Is it simply easier to dismiss Pinkins as being “delusional” or to focus on her perceived professional infraction, rather than acknowledge the harsh truth that people of color have historically been treated abominably in the entertainment industry and that, even now, only 21 percent of all actors being cast in shows on and off-Broadway are people of color?
The situation is even bleaker when you look at the gender and racial breakdown behind the scenes of New York theater. As reported in American Theatre, less than a quarter of all plays produced in America last year were written by women. Even worse, only 12 percent over the past four years were penned by writers of color. Unsurprisingly, data specific to women of color does not exist.
The conversation around Tonya Pinkins and Mother Courage desperately needs to be broadened. The minute details of what happened between actor and director are not nearly as important as the historic and structural dimensions of this story, yet they are all anyone seems to be focusing on.
To an extent, the question of whether Pinkins’ decision was “professional” is irrelevant. Activism is inherently unprofessional. Without disruption, there is no activism. Similarly, the issue of “creative differences,” of whether director or actor was academically “correct” in their interpretation of Brecht’s play is irrelevant. To focus on these questions is to ignore the larger problem of systemic racism in American theater — racism which is both inevitable and invisible because of the overwhelming dominance of white voices in creative decision-making. It is essential that white theatre professionals listen to what Pinkins is really saying, and that they accept her experience of having been disempowered.
“Activism is inherently unprofessional. Without disruption, there is no activism.”
When Black women speak of their disempowerment, they are not making it up. No further conversation can occur until this is fundamentally understood by the white majority. As Pinkins said herself, her motivation for speaking out had less to do specifically with Mother Courage (“the straw that broke [her] silence”) than with everything she’s had to put up with over the course of her career.
And in the difficulties and indignities she has faced, Pinkins is not alone. Her brave response may be extremely unique, but among women and people of color in the theatre industry, her experience is surely closer to universal.