Tonya Pinkins has made one of the most complicated journeys of any Broadway star — from welfare mother to a Tony-nominated role in Caroline, or Change. The mother of four children, ages 17, 14, 8 and 5, Pinkins plays an African-American maid to a Louisiana Jewish family in the Tony Kushner musical.
In many ways, you are the argument FOR welfare – you were able to move off, which is one of welfare’s goals. Why do you think it is so hard for other women to move off the welfare rolls? It’s hard because T.A.N.F. (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), the new name for welfare, is designed to keep them on. The U.S. government spent millions of dollars to research who was on welfare, and their data said the average woman was escaping an abusive home and needed three years to get back on her feet. So T.A.N.F. allows a maximum of two-and-a-half years, six months shy of what their research said was needed. I’ve been shooting a documentary on child custody, and one of the biggest things that came out in interviews with single fathers is how they are praised and applauded everywhere they go for doing the extraordinary thing of parenting their child. Single mothers, on the other hand, are blamed for almost every social ill. I was able to get off welfare because of grace. The beginning of that path was a therapist who told me she couldn’t help me because my problems weren’t in my head, they were in the real world. Next was a teacher who said, “When you feel yourself falling, dive. Do what you love and have no money; you don’t have any now and you’re not doing what you love.” The greatest grace was the friends and relatives who loaned me money in faith that I would one day return it. They believed when I didn’t believe in myself, and I couldn’t have done it without all of that grace. I didn’t earn it and I don’t deserve it any more than any other struggling woman out there. It was a gift to me.
Now that you have steady income, what is your biggest indulgence? When you’ve had nothing for a long time, just catching up on the essentials, like doctors visits, beds, silverware, or a TV, take time. I’m not up to indulgences yet.
Would you encourage your own children to follow your career path? All of my children are extremely beautiful and talented. I would encourage them to pursue whatever their hearts call them to.
As a Broadway actress, you are busy most nights. How do you squeeze in family time? It’s tough. Because when I’m not working, I’m running our lives. But I take my kids to parks, Chuck E. Cheese, and movies, or bring them to my job.
What activities does your whole family enjoy? We like to watch videos together, mostly action adventure or horror, and we like to play cards.
The greatest role for an actress? Caroline is right up there. What do you do to relax? Read.
What book have you loved recently? ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.
What is your favorite book to read to your kids? ‘Love You Forever’, by Robert N Munsch and illustrated by Sheila McGraw.
Favorite on-stage role? Caroline in ‘Caroline, or Change’.
Best family vacation? So far, our Tuscany trip two years ago. We backpacked through Siena and Florence and stayed in people’s homes. All my kids were real troopers. They’re adventurous and open spirited. I’m proud of each one of them.
What would you do with one spare hour and no commitments? Lie on the ground and let Mother Earth hold me up.