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Chicago native Tonya Pinkins dramatizes local history in Emmett Till series

Tonya Pinkins plays Alma Carthan, grandmother of Emmett Till, on “Women of the Movement.” | ABC

‘Women of the Movement’ on ABC caps a busy time for the Tony winner, who directed her first film, ‘Red Pill,’ and narrated a docuseries about missing Black women in Chicago.

Chicago native and Tony Award-winning actor Tonya Pinkins is having a moment. While the pandemic forced many people to scale back, Pinkins has not one but three new projects, including the upcoming “Women of the Movement” on ABC.

On the six-part series, premiering Thursday, she plays Alma Carthan, grandmother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was kidnapped and brutally lynched while on vacation in Mississippi. Pinkins says that this was the hardest role she has taken on in her long career: “I’m a mother, I have four adult children, and it’s the worst thing that anyone could ever imagine to outlive your child.”

The series centers on the heartbreakingly emotional journey of Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to civil rights activism, humanizing the history beyond a narrow true-crime lens. Pinkins predicts the project will be a modern counterpart to “Roots.”

“You meet this family,” she says, “and there’s love, and there’s joy and there’s food and there’s everything, There’s a boy growing up. Just this joyful, joyful life of Black people, which makes what’s coming that much harder.”

A veteran actor whose credits include “All My Children,” “Fear of the Walking Dead,” “Madam Secretary,” “Gotham” and many other TV series, Pinkins began her screen career with commercials and industrial films in Chicago. “For McDonald’s,” she recalls, “I was the ‘smile’ for the ‘Coke and a Smile” campaign.”

Nurtured on the South Side at Robert A. Black school, one of the first magnet schools, Pinkins went on to Whitney M. Young. She found her calling as a performer early.

“There was a little program down on Wabash Avenue where I started taking singing lessons and did the classic shows like ‘Peter Pan andSound of Music.’ ” It wasn’t long before she found success. “I’d been studying with William H. Macy, who was my first professional acting teacher when I was 15 at the St. Nicholas theater, and got my first professional job with Wole Soyinka the Nigerian playwright in his world premiere at the Goodman theater production of ‘Death and the King’s Horseman when I was 16.” Suddenly, she was in high demand.

Pinkins says proudly, “I had to choose between Juilliard, Yale and Carnegie Mellon. I said no to Juilliard because I didn’t like New York City. … And Yale’s undergrad program didn’t have any theater or arts in it so I deferred [enrollment] to Yale. … I did Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh at their musical theater program.” Despite her desire to avoid New York, the universe had other plans. “Over my Christmas break at Carnegie I was cast in Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Go Along,’ which was going to go to Broadway the following September.”

She went on to win a Tony Award in 1992 for “Jelly’s Last Jam” and later was nominated again for “Play On!” and “Caroline, or Change.”

Now, with over 50 years in the business, Pinkins’ journey has led her back to Chicago — in spirit at least.

Just as “Women of the Movement centers the experience of Black women in Chicago, so does one of Pinkins’ other projects, as the narrator of “The Hunt for the Chicago Strangler,” which premiered Dec. 3 on Discovery+. The immersive three-part documentary series delves into a terrifying series of over 50 unsolved cases that suggest that a serial killer may be loose in Chicago. While narrating the history of the cases involving missing Black women, Pinkins came to a truly alarming realization: “It may well be that there may be multiple serial killers in Chicago responsible for this.”

 Midnight Releasing
Tonya Pinkins (center, in purple) stars in “Red Pill” alongside Luba Mason (from left), Kathryn Erbe, Ruben Blades, Adesola Osakalumi and Jake O’Flaherty. She also wrote and directed the horror comedy.

Despite her success as an actor, Pinkins has been seeking new challenges, including becoming a film director. “Three years in shadowing [other directors], I was not any closer to getting hired,” she says.

Frustrated, she tried a different route. “I’m always inspired by Ava DuVernay, and she talked about not getting in the programs, not going to film school, and just desiring to say yes to herself.” Armed with confidence and a credit card, Pinkins self-financed, wrote, directed, acted in and produced her debut feature film, “Red Pill,” a sociopolitical horror comedy set in the weekend of the 2020 election, now available on streaming platforms.

When asked what she would like viewers to take away from her recent projects, she said; “I think the most that I could hope for everyone to take away is the power of individual action and risking it all.”

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