Tonya Pinkins announced she would be leaving the Classic Stage Company’s production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick, on January 5, two days before its planned opening. That opening has now been delayed. “The company will continue the production with replacement casting to be announced shortly,” according to a press statement.
Below is a statement from her about her reasons for doing so. Beneath that is a statement from Brian Kulick in response.
Tonya Pinkins statement:
Who Loses, Who Thrives When White Creatives Tell Black Stories?
The year 2015, saw the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlsMatter, both movements helmed by powerful, fearless Black women. In 2016 I’m starting #BlackPerspectivesMatter.
Twice this year (but too many times in my career) my perspective as a Black woman was dismissed in favor of portraying the Black woman, through the filter of the White gaze. Regrettably, I must exit Classic Stage Company‘s Mother Courage.
When Black bodies are on the stage, Black perspectives must be reflected. This is not simply a matter of “artistic interpretation”; race and sex play a pivotal role in determining who holds the power to shape representation. A Black female should have a say in the presentation of a Black female on stage.
CSC’s truncated version (an hour has been cut) eliminates Mother Courage and her children’s backstory, the use of her cart, and much of Brecht’s brilliant commentary on war. Mother Courage is the King Lear in the classical cannon of female roles. Not since Caroline, or Change, ten years ago, have I had a role of this caliber. How do I walk away from what could be one of the greatest roles in my career? I couldn’t, until all my research, arguing and pleading for my character’s full realization fell on deaf ears. And then I had to.
Brecht’s drama follows Mother Courage, a women who supports herself and her children by selling goods to warring armies from a cart she drags through the battle zones. Along the way, all three of her children are killed because of the war. Mother Courage is the epitome of every poor, undocumented, battered, trafficked and immigrant women hustling to provide for her family however she must.
It’s been a decade since my talent has matched the material – I thought. However, it was not relayed to me until the final tech rehearsal that the vision for this Mother Courage (the Black Mother Courage in an African war) was of a delusional woman trying to do the impossible. She would not be an icon of feminine tenacity and strength, nor of a Black female’s fearless capabilities.
Why must the Black Mother Courage be delusional?
The #CSCMotherCourage poster finds my face plastered on an image of the African Continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted. The inspiration: Lynn Nottage’s impulse to create a Black Mother Courage, which culminated in her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined.
What an opportunity to connect Brecht’s anti-World War II play to the war in modern day Congo, Africa’s first World War. My art meeting my activism. The chance to highlight the Chaplain’s line, “If you want to sup with the devil you need a long spoon,” as analogous to America’s participation in the war in the Congo through our appetites for electronic devices which require Coltan, which is raped and pillaged along with the bodies of Black women and children.
This production does not include a single vestige of the specific war in the Congo. For me, the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable. Why must Africa, why must blackness itself, be general, a decorative motif, instead of being as specific and infinitely diverse as its reality?
This spring, in Rasheeda Speaking, I was the only Black American woman in the room. Does this matter when portraying a Black perspective? Absolutely! The play purported to be about a Black woman’s struggles working in a White medical office. But for the joy of performing nightly with Dianne Wiest, Patricia Connolly and Darren Goldstein, and the talk-backs I orchestrated with Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Professor James Peterson and many others, it was a soul-murdering experience. It is debilitating, explaining to non-Black people, day in and out, that their conceptions of Black people are not only inaccurate but dehumanizing and offensive.
I won an award for playing Jaclyn in Rasheeda Speaking. Months later, people still call out “Rasheeda” when complimenting me on my performance. What they innocently forget, but I am reminded of with each acknowledgement, is that “Rasheeda” was elucidated, in Jaclyn’s climactic monologue in the play, as the new word for “Nigger.” So who is speaking?
Despite Brecht’s title, Mother Courage was not the star of this production. My subordinate position was most clearly communicated to me when I attempted to perform a task Brecht specifically wrote for Mother Courage: snatching a fur coat off an armed soldier’s back. The actor playing the soldier argued, “I’m a man. This is a war. She gotta RESPECT that; I’d have to kill her!” I fired back, “Brecht wrote it. Mother Courage CAN snatch the fur coat and not get killed. Brecht is illustrating her as an ‘Hyena of the war.'” I told the actor I was going to snatch the fur coat, and if he “had to kill me,” the play would have to end seven scenes earlier than Brecht had intended.
I snatched the fur coat at the performance. The actor found a way to continue the play. However, the director said that in future, I couldn’t do it, because, “the actor said he would kill you.” WHAT?!
Mother Courage coddled and reprimanded into submission to patriarchy?
Brecht did not write a delusional woman. He wrote a woman who seizes power at every turn, who forces her way through Hell, and who continues in spite of every opposing force. My Mother Courage was left speechless, powerless, history-less and even cart-less. Why must images of Black women be held hostage in cages of White and/or patriarchal consciousness?
I and many other artists of color have benefitted from having honorary White status bestowed upon us for our work. This status allows us to work alongside the best in the business and to be treated as equals. It is a daily struggle to partake of this status while straining to maintain integrity and authenticity to our own culture. Yet this status is often stripped when we are asked to portray our own people.
I am grateful to Olympia Dukakis, who has played Mother Courage seven times, for attending an early preview and giving me the permission to put my ferocity back into the role. I had not realized that the shame I was feeling was the result of having my “creative c—k,” my “virtuostic vagina” chopped up every day. The backlash from my appropriate creative turn was immediate. One crew member complained “I just can’t control her.”
Am I a dog or a slave to be misled so as to be controlled in my artistic expression?
I was even told that the cuts related to Brecht estate rights and permissions associated with our transposition to the Congo. So I contacted the attorney to the Brecht estate to fight for the integrity of the text that Brecht wrote. The attorney assured me that changing the Thirty Years War references to Congo War references was acceptable to the estate, and that all such matters were artistic decisions between artist and director. Well, not this artist.
My Mother Courage was neutered, leaving the unbridled Mother Courage wasting away inside me. My Mother Courage is too big for CSC’s definition. So it is best that they find someone to “fit in,” because I cannot.
I recall reading, Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage, which was sent to entice me to accept the role. The pinnacle of my career has been Caroline, or Change. Caroline’s power reigned on every page. So I know what that power feels like, and this is not it. CSC’s “Mcdraft” was not even from the Kushner translation.
Why, in 2015, in the arts, is there a need to control the creative expression of a Black woman?
As we begin the new year, I wish for White theater creatives to have the humility to recognize that their perspectives alone are insufficient when portraying Black women and all “others”; that their manufactured fears put false Black images on the stage. I believe this allows real Black people to be destroyed, in the world.
As we enter 2016, the collective White creative community has a responsibility to bring as many “others” into the room, both onstage and offstage, before, during and after decisions are made. Only then will the beauty of global humanity be heard, seen, and finally understood, so that the truth wipes away the misconceptions and misappropriations that cause the fear which foments violence around the globe.
The world can no longer afford to have artistic visions of all White worlds because they simply do not exist. I want the theater to look like the city streets I walk on. That is the theater I aspire to participate in, one where #OtherPerspectivesMatter and are respected and reflected.
I am contractually obligated to perform in #CSCMotherCourage through January 3, 2016.
Brian Kulick’s statement
Let me begin by saying I have great respect for Tonya Pinkins both as a theatre artist and theatre activist and I am so sorry that over the course of this production our views on Mother Courage diverged. Theatre is a collaborative art and we both entered this production in that spirit but, sadly, we have reached an impasse. One goes into a theatre production with suspicions and hunches and a play slowly reveals what it might want to be. Tonya and I seemed to have started with the same basic impulse but reached two different vantage points. Tonya has articulated her point, let me try to articulate mine:
I had a basic question that I started this process with: Can you treat a Brecht play like we now treat a Shakespeare play? In other words, is a Brecht play as open as a Shakespeare text where you can set it in another time and place and see how the play speaks through the lens of that new setting? It seemed like the most direct analogy for a play like MOTHER COURAGE would be to set it in Central Africa in this century. The next question became could you keep the Brecht text as it is and make a transplantation without too much interference with the adaptation? What would it tell us? This added another layer of experience to watching MOTHER COURAGE. The result, for me, is that the play becomes haunted by three powerful ghosts: the ghost of the Thirty Years War (where the original version is set), the ghost of the Second World War (that prompted Brecht to write the play) and the ghost of what is still happening in the Congo today. These cumulative hauntings began to say something about war with a capital “W.” It also allowed us to use the production as a way of reminding audiences that even though the plight of the Congo does not occupy the front pages of our newspapers, it is an on-going conflict that is still far from over and can use our attention and support.
As Tonya and I worked on the production the question became how specific does one have to become to evoke the Congo? Do we need place names, do we need to rewrite narration to make this leap or can it live in the realm of images, music and the given circumstances of the actors? I gravitated toward what I would call a more “open” approach, Tonya was longing for specifics. As we kept working on the play, this question and how to answer it became louder and louder to each of us to a point where I think we couldn’t hear each other anymore.
Toward the end of the process I used a very strong word to characterize a potential end point for Mother Courage. The word was “delusional.” This grew out of my reading of Brecht’s notes, where he states over and over again that the point of MOTHER COURAGE is that she does not learn from the events of the play. In his notes he tells us:
“Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance or what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.”
Tonya objected to my use of the term “delusional” and we reworked the very ending of the play toward an image, which spoke to her idea of Mother Courage as “survivor.” I was pleased with the final result. It was our last moment of collaboration. I felt it allowed the audience to see both possibilities in one image. This duality, for me, is at the very heart of the theatrical enterprise, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves what to make of this deeply contradictory character known as Mother Courage.
The boldfacing is mine.