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NEW YORK (AP) — Bertolt Brecht’s epic play Mother Courage and Her Children may be about the horrors of war, but a new off-Broadway production is revealing real conflict offstage, too.
Tony Award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins said she will abruptly leave the Classic Stage Company’s revival early next month, claiming the part has been “neutered,” is ”subordinate” and created through “the filter of the white gaze.”
The artistic director of the company acknowledged there was an “impasse” and that “we couldn’t hear each other anymore.” It is a rare public look at backstage spats that are usually deemed “artistic differences.”
The play is about a woman who runs a canteen-on-wheels during the Thirty Years’ War, which spanned 1618-1648. She is dependent on the bloodshed around her in order to keep her business flush and support her family. As her values erode, she is robbed of everything she truly cares about.
In the Classic Stage Company revival, directed by Brian Kulick, who is the artistic director of the company, the play’s setting was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the script was cut.
But Pinkins complained the shift to Africa was “a decorative motif” and it was not clear to her until technical rehearsals that the revival’s view of the heroine “was of a delusional woman trying to do the impossible.” She said she tried to fight for her vision but was rebuffed.
“My Mother Courage was left speechless, powerless, history-less and even cart-less,” Pinkins, a respected actress who played the title role in Caroline, or Change and won a Tony in Jelly’s Last Jam, said Wednesday in a statement.
“Why, in 2015, in the arts, is there a need to control the creative expression of a black woman?” she wrote. “Am I a dog or a slave to be misled so as to be controlled in my artistic expression?”
In a statement released Wednesday, Kulick said he had “great respect” for Pinkins both as a theater artist and activist and, “I am so sorry that over the course of this production our views on Mother Courage diverged.”
“One goes into a theater 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,” he wrote.
He acknowledged she disliked his use of the term “delusional” and said he tried to work with Pinkins on making Mother Courage more a “survivor.”
As for the changed setting, Kulick said he favored a general way to conjure the Congo, while Pinkins longed 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.”
Pinkins said she consulted on the new changes to the play with Olympia Dukakis, who has played the role many times and came to see Pinkins. Ultimately, she decided: “A black female should have a say in presentation of a black female onstage.”
Pinkins said she was contractually obligated to play the part through Jan. 3 but “My Mother Courage is too big for CSC’s definition. So it is best that they find someone to ‘fit in,’ because I cannot.”
The theater company said it has postponed the show’s official press opening, which had been scheduled for Jan. 7 and that “the company will continue the production with replacement casting to be announced.”
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