By Darlene Donloe
Tonya Pinkins’ latest role is painful to watch.
It has nothing to do with her acting ability, the dialogue, or the direction. Rather, it has everything to do with the mental and emotional journey her character has to take – due to the death of her son, a police officer killed in the line of duty.
Pinkins, stars in Belle Rêve Theatre Company’s inaugural production of Time Alone, a world premiere by Alessandro Camon, set to open at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 2, on October 7. The show, directed by Bart DeLorenzo, also stars Alex Hernandez.
The play is about solitary confinement in its many forms and how it manifests itself. Gabriel (Alex Hernandez) is a young man who receives solitary confinement after being convicted of killing a gang rival. Anna (Pinkins) is a woman who has retreated internally after her son, a police officer, is murdered in the line of duty.
In order to authentically convey a mother’s pain, Pinkins had to go on a painful journey inward – in which she had to revisit her own personal trauma. The native of Chicago, who has also lived in Los Angeles but is currently living in New York, admits that the process wasn’t easy – but that it was necessary.
Camon’s tone is dark, deep, and deliberate.
“The character of Gabriel is someone I’ve met many times,” said writer Camon, who has been researching solitary confinement for years. “I’ve met hundreds of versions of him. He has committed crimes and he has to pay for it for the rest of his life. We have to address that as a society. There has to be a better way to deal with crime than to throw people away.”
Asked why he wrote the role of Anna, Camon said, “The play needed conflict. I wanted to also portray a different point of view, so I created this character that represents a ‘law and order’ mindset. I wanted a person who believes in the law and the death penalty and to give this character her due. I wrote it with sympathy and conviction. Tonya is a fearless actor who really loves being challenged. We take a lot of the emotional journey of the character. Tonya has a fearlessness to go there. She’s not afraid to go to a painful place.”
A veteran actress with an enviable list of credits too long to print, Pinkins, a Tony Award-winning actress (Jelly’s Last Jam), singer, author, activist and educator, is one of those actresses who puts all of herself into every role.
@THIS STAGE recently caught up with the busy actress to talk about how she prepared for a role that would put her in an uncomfortable space.
@THIS STAGE: What attracted you to Time Alone?
PINKINS: I liked Alessandro’s writing. When I spoke to him, I appreciated his humility and openness and his genuine caring.
@THISSTAGE: How have Alessandro and Bart been to work with?
PINKINS: Alessandro is a philosopher, poet, and humble man. He’s open and willing. Bart is a lot of fun. He experienced grief in his own home. His brother committed suicide. He watched his mother grieve.
@THIS STAGE: And who is Anna?
PINKINS: Anna is a conservative Christian woman from Texas. She’s had a good life. She fares well after her hubby dies. But when she loses her son, she can’t recover. She wants the death penalty because she can’t recovery. There is sort of a serendipitous point in the play that starts her on an upturn.
@THIS STAGE: How is he killed and who kills him?
PINKINS: He’s killed during a robbery. It’s never really said who kills him, but people listening to the name will put the person as an Afro Latino Caribbean.
@THIS STAGE: Is the death fresh? Did it just happen?
PINKINS: When the play opens – I think it takes place over the course of five or six years of grieving.
@THIS STAGE: From an acting perspective, would you say you have to like your character in order to play her?
PINKINS: I don’t think I have to like my character, but I have to relate to them and they have to be believable. They can’t be repulsive. My character in this show has a different perspective. I understand her humanity and her loss. I want to inhabit that.
@THIS STAGE: How did you find the emotion to play Anna?
PINKINS: I’m just an empath. I have a large capacity for feeling people’s pain. I always have. The language Alessandro wrote, the emotion was right there. I have had many losses. I’ve lost more than some people have even had. Not in that way, though. It’s a different kind of violence.
@THIS STAGE: When you first read the script, what did you think you could bring to the role?
PINKINS: When I read it, I didn’t know yet what I was going to do with the role. I had to figure out: what is my inspiration?. I would like people to actually experience that grief she feels in a way that we avoid in our own life. One line is, “when you experience tragedy you become an outcast. And sympathy for your grief has an expiration date.” People don’t know how to be with someone in time of grief and loss and death. I want to bring as much of the experience of someone authentically grieving into the room so people can practice being with that. They can build a capacity for being comfortable in its presence.
@THIS STAGE: The play is very sensitive. You play a woman whose son, a policeman, is killed in the line of duty. A black cop is killed. Should the community be up in arms because he falls under the Black Lives Matter banner – or does he?
PINKINS: Absolutely! Absolutely! I think that Black Lives Matter is one of the groups under the larger movement for black lives…. Under that umbrella are people who are oppressed in the world. What’s interesting is that some of the black officers today are at risk by police officers that are their fellow officers. They are not safe from other officers.
@THIS STAGE: How do you feel about the police?
PINKINS: My father was a police officer 30 years ago.
@THIS STAGE: As the child of an officer, where do you fall on the issue?
PINKINS: I believe in Black Lives Matter. My father would, too, if he were alive today. I’ve had an interesting life – in that my family came from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and in my home no one talked about racism. I went to integrated schools from an early age. My own experience of bigotry, I was spared that until I was an adult and moved to New York. I had a black husband who would tell me all the bad things he would experience during the day. I had no sympathy. I couldn’t relate. My second husband was white. It was so black and white. We hired a black and white psychiatrist to talk about the bias of white people. I had been sheltered.
@THIS STAGE: This is a timely show – given today’s climate. To you, he’s your son. Police officers and the black community are at odds. Your thoughts?
PINKINS: I don’t think there is a way out of it from where we sit. The system we have in America has to be dismantled. In the beginning things are going to happen locally, not nationally. It will be continually forced upon white people to recognize their terrorist acts and to be educated on the legacy of their ancestors. We need to talk about the genocide of people and recognize that their temporary benefit is a long-term loss for all of humanity. Our planet is on the verge of extinction. We have to think further into the future.
@THIS STAGE: Why should this show matter?
PINKINS: It is important for people from communities who live this to see their lives and stories being elevated to art. It’s important for them to see themselves and their lives ennobled. It’s important for them to possibly be enlightened and have a change of mind and heart about attitudes they had about the world. It’s a kind of arrogant ignorance.
Time Alone, Theatre 2, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S Spring Street Los Angeles, through October 29. For tickets, visit: www.thelatc.org/timealone.