While Hollywood denizens dodge fallout from the monochromatic Oscar nominations, Broadway might be feeling smug in this season of The Color Purple, On Your Feet!, Allegiance, Eclipsed and, of course, Hamilton, populated with historic Anglo figures played by non-white actors, their tales refracted through the prism of rap music — the white light of history split into colors across the human spectrum. Central to Hamilton is the question: Who gets to tell the story?
And yet here is a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 anti-war drama Mother Courage And Her Children that has commanded the attention of the theater world as intensely as the all-white list of Oscar acting nominees. Not because of what’s on stage at the tiny Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street, but precisely because of who isn’t: Tonya Pinkins, the exceptionally fine actress (she won a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam and deserved a a second for her unforgettable performance in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, Or Change). Pinkins announced in late December that she would fulfill her contractual obligation but leave the show two days before its January 7 press opening. It wasn’t long before a remarkably frank and angry war of words erupted not only between Pinkins and director Brian Kulick (who also is CSC’s artistic director) but with some of her fellow cast members as well.
Mother Courage is set during the Protestant-versus-Catholic Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century. The title figure is a business woman who pulls her cart, loaded with goods for sale and her three children, from encampment to encampment. Her politics is capitalism, her only belief is in the rule of money, even as she eventually loses children, companion, goods — everything but her miserable cart — to the endless war.
Kulick, who is white, has set the play in the current time and moved it to the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo, with an all-black cast. Pinkins accused the director of changing the conception of the title character toward the end of the rehearsal period and, significantly, being deaf to her protests about the shift. Kulick, in one of his responses to Pinkins, conceded to a lack of diplomacy in using the word “delusional” to describe Mother Courage at play’s end. Pinkins felt that was wrong and offensive for a character she played as a fiercely strong black woman. No white director had the right to tell her how to view the role, she wrote in a widely distributed explanation of her actions:
My experience at CSC reflects inequality at the intersection of race and gender. Were I differently abled, transgendered, muslim or a combination of them, I would experience inequality distinctly differently for each and every way in which I was not a part of the healthy, White, male, Christian normative of American society, where privilege and power reside…My departure from CSC’s Mother Courage was not bourne of one episode but of a lifetime of experiences of inequality, patriarchy and misogyny. CSC’s Mother Courage was simply the straw to break my silence.
My purpose in describing this painful episode is twofold: First, to show that these schisms run deep throughout the entertainment business and will not be healed by any single show, even one as revelatory and, yes, as healing, as Hamilton. And, two, to celebrate something remarkable, which is the performance that Kecia Lewis is giving as a last-minute replacement. Still calling for line cues and sometimes reading from the script at a critics’ performance, Lewis nevertheless was mesmerizing as a woman addicted to survival yet able to reveal a beating heart at moments that make Brecht’s text less didactic than it often is thought to be.
It’s hardly an afterthought to add that Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening and the upcoming American Psycho) has written some sinuously beautiful music for the songs Brecht wrote for the play, especially “The Song Of Fraternization” and “The Song Of The Great Capitulation.” Although the Congo setting and the play’s themes also are present in such contemporary plays as the Pulitzer-winning Ruined and Eclipsed (starring Lupita Nyong’o and soon to re-open on Broadway), Kulick’s conception is sound and the cast surrounding Lewis is impeccable. Particularly noteworthy are the three children, Deandre Sevon (Swiss Cheese), Curtis Cook Jr. (Eilif) and especially Mirirai Sithole as Kattrin, the mute daughter who dies the play’s sole heroine. Also, however, Kevin Mambo as the unctuous cook who is Mother Courage’s unlikely suitor, and Zenzi Williams as Yvette, a prostitute.
It’s Lewis, however, who has turned an almost impossible situation not only to her own advantage but to the credit of the company, pushing on nobly through what I would call a neccessary crisis. For these issues will not be resolved here, or in Hollywood in time for the February 28 Oscars ceremony. First, they must all be heard, however painful the hearing might prove to be.