Reynaldo Piniella made an abrupt Broadway debut portraying a go-getting actor in 2021 under strange and trying circumstances; “It’s been such a crazy time,” he says. “Within like a 24 hour period the situation flipped on its head.” Twelve years earlier, he made his Off-Off Broadway debut portraying a go-getting actor under circumstances that were trying in their own way.
I saw him in both roles, and interviewed him in 2009 and now again at the end of 2021, below.
In 2009, he was a teenager, having been raised by a single mother in East New York, Brooklyn, wary and withdrawn, and graduating from a public high school in Queens that had armed guards, but also a teacher who introduced him to the theater. He was working for free at The Flea Theater, in a series of plays called “The Great Recession.” He played a character named Michael in Erin Courtney’s “Severed” who was not as upset as some of the other characters about the hard times after the stock market crash of 2008, because “being an actor is a crap job anyway, I mean financially…and we signed on for that.” I was impressed with his performance then, and with the ones I’ve seen in the years since – in “Facing Our Truth” at the National Black Theatre; Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” and later her “Venus,” both at Signature; “Terminus” opposite Deirdre O’Connell at New York Theater Workshop; and in a raft of movies and TV series (You can catch him currently in “Shadows,” a short film on HBO Max in which he portrays a Muslim ex-con and overprotective brother.)
Now suddenly he seems to have landed in the middle of several major theater stories all at the same time. Because of a surge in breakthrough infections, this is a moment when understudies have become crucially important (and vigorously praised by theater people who were outraged when Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin made an offhand remark belittling them) — and Piniella is a first-time Broadway understudy on “Trouble in Mind.”
The play, which Alice Childress wrote in 1955 about racism during rehearsals for a fictional play called “Chaos in Belleville” on Broadway, was one of an unprecedented six plays written by African-American playwrights with largely African-American casts to open on Broadway in the first three months of its reopening in the Fall. At the same time, he was cast as a replacement in “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” another one of the six, a new play by Keenan Scott II. But he was hired right before that play shut down because of the Omicron variant – one of four Broadway shows abruptly shuttered for the same reason within a week. The closing was announced on the very day that Piniella was for the first time called to perform the role he was understudying in “Trouble in Mind.”
That sort of sums up 2021 for a lot of us, doesn’t it? Sudden moments of triumph and trauma side by side.
“I’m still processing it all,” he says. So are we all.
We talked just after I saw him performing on stage in “Trouble in Mind,” which he was able to do for a solid week as 2021 came to an end. The conversation is edited.
Jonathan Mandell: What was 2021 like for you?
Reynaldo Piniella: Oh man, you know I was lucky in 2021 to be involved with projects that have something to say about the world, that are trying to reach new audiences. That came after I had time to reflect and really examine what kind of work I want to do as an artist.
–This self-reflection was because of the pandemic?
Yeah, yeah. When the lockdown happened in March 2020, I was getting ready to do two different shows — in rehearsal for a production of “A Harlem Dream,” with the Classical Theater of Harlem at the Kennedy Center, which was essentially “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set during the Harlem Renaissance, and I was one week away from starting rehearsal at the Public Theater for “Cymbeline.” So I was in this great position as an actor, and then the shutdown happened and suddenly I was unemployed.
It gave me a chance to pause and say okay, what are the things that I’ve been wanting to do?
The pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to finish my degree. I had to drop out of Brooklyn College in the Fall of 2012 to do my first Equity show at the Actors Theater of Louisville when I had only eight credits left to graduate.
(Fun fact: I had to take a theater history course to graduate and we read the play “Venus” by Suzan-Lori Parks and the production photos shown in class had me in them since I was in the most recent Off-Broadway revival of the play. )
I stepped up my activism. So much of my life before the pandemic was self-serving. During the pandemic, I’ve been working hard to secure meetings with members of Congress, in partnership with different nonprofit organizations that I work with, around various issues related to the arts.
As an actor, I had been spending a lot of my time looking for approval, trying to get work from people who did not always fairly compensate me, who did not care about me as an individual. So, I was totally resigned to the fact that I may never do theater again — that theater in many ways was not serving me. It was not always putting food on my table or keeping my bills paid. I was feeling very disillusioned with theater.
–Do you mean you were feeling disillusioned with theater as opposed to film and television?
The business of theater — the lack of support we got from these major institutions, who looked at us like family before the pandemic, but then once the pandemic struck were absent without leave. These institutions did not produce a lot of work virtually during the pandemic, and it was actually the smaller institutions that were working to get direct grants to arts professionals.
But then in 2021, “Trouble In Mind” came around. It was happenstance. I didn’t audition.
The director Charles Randolph-Wright asked me to be involved because he knew who I was as an artist. I had worked with him on a benefit reading at the Classical Theater of Harlem of his play “Cuttin’ Up” and then a couple of other readings virtually. I had never performed on Broadway before. I had only been an understudy briefly at Rattlestick Theater for the play “Lockdown” by Cori Thomas, but in that show I was replacing someone. In “Trouble in Mind,” I had no guarantee of ever going on.
–Why did you agree to do it?
When Charles approached me to understudy, he made clear that he understands my talent. He said he understood what I bring to a production and how, in this age of Covid, it was very important to him that he had understudies that could go on at a moment’s notice. I was familiar with Charles’s work and also Alice’s work and the incredible artists involved – LaChanze and Chuck Cooper; I had grown up admiring them. I had worked with Jessica Frances Dukes. So it felt like getting back into the flow of things.
–Let’s back up a minute. I just saw a documentary called “Reopening Night,”which is about the making of “Merry Wives” at the Delacorte. They interviewed a recent graduate who was working as an audio technician for the show, and she expressed amazement at getting hired by the Public so soon after graduating, because she said she had a 12-year plan, and the Public Theater was for Year Eight. She literally said 12 years. It’s been 12 years for you now. So I’m wondering, when I saw you at the Flea, your first professional performance on a New York stage, did you also have a 12-year plan? And was Year 12 to wind up on Broadway?
I don’t know if I was that intentional at a young age. When you first saw me at the Flea Theater, I was 18 years old doing these shows with these actors who went to the best drama schools in the country. I took my first drama class in high school when I was 16. I didn’t see a professional show until my senior year.
But in those two years, I saw my life transform. I saw my confidence build. At the Flea, I was having fun, while also doing work I thought was important. I thought all theater was like “The Great Recession.” I thought all theater was going to be about important, relevant topics.
Broadway was never one of my goals. I never looked at Broadway as a place where “real work” happened. I thought of it as a place where people go to see some escapism, rather than investigate the world we’re living in right now.
My goal was to make a living as an artist. I didn’t understand how people made a career, but I knew if I kept working, if I kept putting myself out there, eventually the path would clear up and I would discover how I fit into this business. There’s no blueprint for someone from my background from East New York that wants to be making a living as an actor and a writer and an educator. I’m discovering it day by day.
–Tell me more about what a background from East New York means.
East New York has been one of the neighborhoods with the highest rates of crime in New York City and I grew up in this hyper masculine environment where kids were getting into fights a lot and you had to project this tough image. That just wasn’t me. I was very much into video games. I’d be at my PlayStation for hours at a time; I would read a lot of books; do anything except socialize.
I went to public schools that were very underfunded and underserved, with armed police that made it feel like a militarized zone.
I went to John Bowne High School in Flushing. Queens, which was one of the worst schools academically in the city for a number of years. I got lucky because we had a young English teacher who came from an arts background; he had dropped out of the American Conservatory Theater’s MFA program. He started a theater class that I ended up taking to get out of a normal English class. And I fell in love with theater. It was the first time someone wanted to hear my voice, allow me to play, to make a fool out of myself, not make me feel like I had to be tough all the time.
My family is still surprised I’m an actor, because I had been such a quiet kid; I was the kid who would hide in his room all the time. My sister saw “Trouble in Mind” last night and she said she never would have thought I’d be on stage at all, let alone Broadway.
–What’s it been like to be a first-time Broadway understudy?
It was very intensive because I was learning a new way of working. I was an actor that learned by doing, and suddenly I was being asked to sit and watch another actor’s work.
Our director wanted me to make John Nevins my own, which was really great because I did not feel like I had to try to mimic another actor.
The principal actor Brandon Micheal Hall and I are so different. He’s taller and dark-skinned. Charles saw him as a leading man like Sydney Poitier. I’m lighter skinned; he saw me as Harry Belafonte, a pretty boy, and maybe the white characters would be more welcoming to a lighter skinned man; he is able to get closer to the [character of the white] director and to feel like he has the permission to get close to the white actress in the play. Harry also had a background as a dancer so maybe he would be more physical, particularly in the play-within-the-play.
–I saw that more physical approach in that awkward hug your character gives LaChanze’s at the beginning of the play.
The way we talked about that moment , John is an exuberant young man. He’s excited for this first day of rehearsal and also he’s aware of who this actress is. She’s a hometown hero. It’s this weird thing: I want to hug you, but I shouldn’t hug you, but I can’t help myself. So it’s that weird in between thing.
–How much do you relate personally to John Nevins, and to “Trouble in Mind”?
Everyone who has come see the show has remarked on how timely the play is and how eerie the conversation the play is having around art and representation. It mimics the conversation we’re having in the American theater now about who gets to tell what stories and how. And in many ways it embodied the struggle I was having as an artist. I was not able to tell stories about my community in a positive and truthful way. I had to do projects where my people were demeaned, belittled. I played stereotypes and I had to learn the hard way, much like John Nevins, that for the true artist your integrity is paramount. So I think “Trouble in Mind” is a perfect play for 2021. And in many ways it’s almost shameful that we’re having these same conversations, because Alice was raising these questions all those years ago.
–Are you talking about your stage or your screen roles as being belittling?
I would say both. TV and film are more obvious because we have all of these crime shows where the black and brown people are the criminals and the white cops save the day. That’s what Middle America consumes , and it’s contributing to a skewed view and the political divide in the country.
But even in the American theater, we joke about how theaters only do Black shows when it’s Black History Month.
Even this moment on Broadway, with all these Black shows bringing Broadway back when we knew the virus was having a resurgence. We’re seeing “Thoughts of A Colored Man” close early, “Chicken & Biscuits” close early.
It is beautiful that we have all of these Black plays on Broadway, but at the same time what’s happening next season? So far we have “A Strange Loop” announced, which is amazing. We have “Ohio State Murders,” which is amazing. But I want to make sure this isn’t just a trend, that we’re not just producing Black art when it’s trendy.
I’m also looking for when they’re going to produce Asian writers on Broadway, someone from the disabled community. I’m applauding this small moment we have. But to me it’s not enough to make the systemic change we want to see.
–Most of the plays you’re talking about had limited runs to begin with. I think that may be largely because they’re straight plays, as opposed to musicals, and straight plays generally have limited runs. Aren’t producers hedging because they’re not sure that a Broadway audience will pay those high prices for them?
I understand it’s an incredibly tough time for Broadway, particularly with the variant and tourism being down.. At the same time, I think people really respond to great work. I look at the audiences who come to “Trouble in Mind,” and they love it. And I don’t think it’s an easy play. It requires you to be introspective and ask some tough questions.
–So here you are on Broadway for the first time, which you kind of fell into, and then you immediately get a second shot, with “Thoughts of A Colored Man” – until you don’t.
Yeah, man, it’s been such a crazy time. Within like a 24 hour period, the situation flipped on its head.
–Tell me about it.
I originated the role of Lust in the regional premieres of the play, in late 2019. I did the show at Syracuse Stage and then at Baltimore Center Stage. The play was well received, and there was always a commercial producer attached, so we understood they were aiming for Broadway. I also understood the economics of Broadway sometimes necessitating casting an actor more prominent in the TV and film world. But then the role I originated became available, and the director asked me to reprise it starting January 4th. I was incredibly excited to do so. Last Tuesday [December 21] was my first rehearsal for the show. I went to the Golden Theater and it was great. The following day I was on my way to see the 2 p.m. matinee of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” to track the journey of the character in the Broadway production, and at 1:50 pm. I got a call from the assistant stage manager of “Trouble in Mind” asking me to get to American Airlines Theater as soon as possible, and when I got there they told me to get in costume. I’m in a daze and I’m flustered, and I don’t know what’s happening. At maybe 2:15 they make an announcement that I’m going on, and we start the show. And I make my Broadway debut.
The next day, after curtain call, I found out from a friend in the cast that “Thoughts of a Colored Man” had shut down.
–How did you react to this?
I’m still processing it. It all happened so quickly. I started to receive all these messages from people offering me their sympathy and condolences and how there’s something else on the horizon for me. It was just a weird dynamic of the high of making my Broadway debut and the low of having my first Broadway show in which I was going to be a principal abruptly close.
–Well, you’d have to have been juggling both, right?
Yeah, we would have had to do some scheduling gymnastics to make it work, but I was totally down to do it. It was a rare opportunity to be involved with two Black plays on Broadway in the same season; two shows dealing with the subject matter that I want to be working on; two shows that are trying to reach new communities on Broadway. I was worried less about sleep and more about just getting off book [memorizing lines].
–I wonder whether you think that the strange circumstances of the last year landed you on Broadway, and that it might not have happened otherwise because, as you said, you didn’t particularly care whether it happened or not.
It feels to me sort of a culmination of all the work that I started doing at a young age, because I was cast in two shows on Broadway in the same season that I did not audition for. It was based on my track record. So it felt like, if it was not these particular shows, eventually it was going to happen.
–Now that it has happened, how do you feel about 2022? Any plans, predictions?
“Thoughts of A Colored Man” was supposed to end in March, so now that that show’s not happening for me, I don’t quite know. So much is unclear right now with these variants. I’m thankful to be healthy right now. I’m just taking things day by day. But I don’t think I had a plan going into 2021 either, and things certainly more than worked out for me.
–Thanks, Reynaldo. Happy New Year!
Same to you. I hope I see you soon. If I see you, that means I’m working!