AMERICAN THEATRE | Horror and Magic With Tonya Pinkins
Her film ‘Red Pill,’ which she thinks of as a Black woman’s ‘Get Out,’ views the nation’s ills through the lens of horror.
Last summer, after a string of mass shootings, Tonya Pinkins holed up in her friend’s home to write the horror film Red Pill. “I wrote a script and shared it with some friends, and it was very disturbing to many people who read it,” Pinkins recalls with a laugh. “And that let me know that it was definitely the thing I needed to do.”
The film—which Pinkins produced, wrote, directed, and starred in, and is intended for release before the election in November—follows a group of liberals who travel to Virginia to get out the vote ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and they quickly learn that they are not welcome in the Old Dominion. It’s Halloween and things turn, well, downright scary at their rental house.
With the film, Pinkins confronts thorny political conversations she’s had with friends, and explores the delusions many progressives have about race in America. “I want to wake them up, you know, stir them into something,” she says. And what better way to activate a crowd en masse than with a horror film?
Jordan Peele’s much-lauded Get Out and Ari Aster’s Midsommar were among the inspirations for Pinkins’s script. “Get Out just made me so happy,” says Pinkins, noting that Black and white audiences experienced the film differently. “Red Pill is like the Black woman’s Get Out—this is how I see the world.”
The Tony-winning actor, known for her roles in Broadway’s Caroline, Or Change and Jelly’s Last Jam, doesn’t feel that she has had the opportunity to fully share her perspective on the world as a performer.
“I learned that I should have been doing this a long time ago,” she says of driving her own projects. “The epiphany for me as a person was that I never wanted to be a ‘leader.’ I always thought I could never be a leader because I’m always learning something new—and I don’t want to lead people astray.” But as she settled into the director’s chair, she became her own hype woman: “You better trust that you’re not gonna lead them astray, so get to it!” One of the most rewarding aspects of leading the film, she says, was bringing together a team of collaborators, which included cast members Rubén Blades, Kathryn Erbe, Luba Mason, and Adesola Osakalumi.
The film was shot in just 10 days last fall, a whirlwind experience Pinkins says felt “miraculous.” But then the world changed, and the March 2020 release date was postponed due to COVID-19. (The release date is still TBA.) The already scary film has taken on new resonance in light of the pandemic and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.
“The biggest surprise for me was learning when your world changes as you’re telling a story, your story changes too,” she says. Pinkins has been reviewing the film in post-production and making changes accordingly. Among the last-ditch changes for the film is an overhaul of its score, which is currently being re-recorded in Iceland by a string quartet under the direction of composer Teese Gohl.
“We’re rescoring it, because a lot of what was in the movie was not as de rigueur,” Pinkins explains. “This piece is far more urgent and scary because of what is in the news everyday—things that were whimsical and light and are now so intense.”
Red Pill could be interpreted as a response to the election of 2016, or a prescient reflection on the revolving door of horrors that the year 2020 has been spinning out. “More than anything, it is about the history of America and the ways we don’t want to look at who we really are,” explains Pinkins.
Though the hope is that the film will be released digitally before the November election, Pinkins is pushing for it to appear at drive-in theatres, because “there’s nothing like watching a horror film at a drive-in.”
In addition to putting the final touches on Red Pill, Pinkins is using this time of social distancing to create, write, and learn. In June, she appeared as part of an online reading of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession on Stars in the House to benefit the Actors Fund, and last month, her play Till Hell Freezes Over was presented as part of an online festival by the Planet Connections Festivity.
With the Brecht estate’s blessing, she and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are working on a new version of Mother Courage. “I have some personal feelings as a mother about Mother Courage and the way she has been depicted by the male translators of Brecht,” concedes Pinkins, who bowed out of a 2016 production at Classic Stage Company. “Branden is fluent in German…my interpretation of Mother Courage is borne up by what Brecht actually wrote in the German. And so we’re going to try to bring my version, a mother’s version of Mother Courage, to the theatre.”
While the first few months of quarantine were admittedly filled with “sloth days” and TV binges, Pinkins is now feeling activated. She’s hitting her daily 10,000-step goal, perfecting her London broil recipe, and she’s learning about magic with books about the Kabbalah, Aleister Crowley, Tarot, and astrology.
“It’s a whole new world for me,” she says. “For whatever reason, none of those things ever crossed my life before. I’ve always believed that we are co-creating the universe.”
In addition to tending to her growing reading list—there are no less than 10 books on her bedside table at any given time, she says—she’s been penning essays and even working on a novel of her own.
In this time of pause and learning, Pinkins believes that Red Pill delivers a message that’s needed. “If anything, this pandemic has shown me that for as many of us as they are, that’s how many worlds are existing on top of each other,” she says, noting the absurd battle between maskers and anti-maskers. “I hope that I’ve made a story that captures that.”