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Tonya Pinkins Sets Herself Free

Over the years, Tonya Pinkins has withstood the test of time in her career and personal life. She has become an icon in which younger performers look up to. You may know some of her story but there is always something more that a women of her caliber can offer if you just take the time to listen. In this case, take the time to read. We recently received an email from Pinkins explaining about her Concert at Joes’ Pub. She had some very interesting things to say that inspired us and we hope it will inspire you just the same.


“I grew up singing around the house in Chicago. Singing was my place and space to express all my feelings. I did musicals and community theater in high school and then I got a part in “Merrily We Roll Along” at age 19. That made my entree onto the New York scene much easier than most people will ever find it.

In 1981 in the world of musical theater, Black women were expected to sing gospel. I was raised Catholic. I did not grow up in the gospel tradition. I was a fish out of water. But that was what every audition and every show demanded. So I learned some fake riffs. I always felt inauthentic and ashamed when I was in the room with people who grew up singing that way. But I kept working, even while feeling more and more ashamed of my own voice. Black women who sing like Audra McDonald weren’t getting the jobs in the 80’s.

I finally walked away from singing to focus on acting. And whenever I was asked if I was a singer, I would always say “No, I’m an actor who sings.” I acted my way through some great roles in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Play On,” “The Wild Party” and “Caroline or Change.” I haven’t really been on stage in a musical since Caroline and that was in London in 2007. I really miss singing.

I worked on the Ethel Waters show and did a concert of the material at 54 Below last August. it was the most thrilling experience I had ever had in my life. I got to use all of my range and I didn’t have to do anything inauthentic. When that project died, I felt like I needed to start singing again.

I turned down several plays and made a personal commitment to singing as much as possible. And if you want to sing in New York, where best to start than cabaret, if there is no Broadway show in the offing?

I had to overcome a lot of fear. I’ve guested with Jaime DeRoy at The Metropolitan Room and With Scott Siegel at Feinstein’s and Town Hall. When I met Brad Simmons I was guesting at 54 Below on his show with my old friend Paul Oakley Stovall. Brad and I instantly hit it off. We discovered that we were then in the exact opposite positions on the love spectrum. He was in his first long-term live-in relationship and I was swearing off men after yet a third failed marriage..

It sounded like a great idea for a cabaret show. Since we both love men, thus the title “BRING ON THE MEN”! Brad is an amazing singer/songwriter/arranger. I loved the way he mixed pop and Broadway songs together for Paul’s show so seamlessly.

On our Joe’s Pub set — which I really want to become a monthly series — for the February 18th date we are doing a medleys of “I Honestly Love You/What’s Love Got To do With it” and “Why/Poison and Wine” and “Free Fallin’/Feeling Groovy with Sun in The Morning.”

It’s great to sing in harmony. We sound great together. The idea is, we’re two friends and each date will find us in another phase on the relationship spectrum and in the exact opposite phase as the other.

Love, friendship and song: how would any of us survive this life without them?

-Tonya Pinkins”

Written By

Drew Shade is a theatre artist and enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Broadway Black, Off-Book Podcast & The Antonyo Awards. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson


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