At The Table: Karen Pittman
Every month we meet and sit down with women who remind us of what it means to live a BOLD life. This month we sat down with Karen Pittman, who is currently starring in Pipeline at Lincoln Center Theater. Karen is a force, not only onstage but in life. Journey with us as she talks motherhood, working with other Black women, and breathing life into the character Nya.
Tell us about your journey and how you came to be the genius artist that you are. What are some highlights? What are some moments or people that you won't forget?
I think there are three that stand out. One was my father and his presence in my life. He was a true advocate of me being truly who I am and not worrying about what other people thought. Which was important to my development as an artist. We shared a very strong relationship, and not because we always bonded well, but because our relationship went through a lot of changes, and we fought all the way through those changes. My father died suddenly in 2006 and there really wasn’t anything unsaid between us. It was a big moment for me.
Another was going to NYU grad acting and meeting the teachers and actors that I worked with at the TISH school. One of the biggest spirits that I met there that taught me about what it means to be an actor, which is to be of service to the playwright, to the play, and the other actors, is Zelda Fichandler. She is now passed away as well.
And finally, having my two children, my son Jacob who was born right before I went to grad school, (yes, I auditioned for grad school pregnant) and my daughter Lena who was a surprise, I had her a year and half out of grad school.
But like any woman who is aiming for a life that she can truly articulate herself, and has true ambition to be of service to the world in the biggest way possible, there are many more, but these are the three highlights that stick out the most.
Pipeline, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed be Lileana Blain-Cruz, tells the story of Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, who is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities they'll never have. When a controversial incident at his upstate private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent.Tell us about playing Nya. What has been your experience in creating this character?
Lileana Blain-Cruz is the director and Dominique Morisseau is the playwright and they said, "Nya is a woman who starts out in crisis and ends in less of a crisis," and I said, “Oh, well, shit, I know that. That’s me every damn day.” My life is not Nya’s life, but in many ways I understand the parallels of what she is going through and what I have gone through, and feel like I can speak to it in a deeply empathic way to display her humanity from moment to moment. The cigarette smoking, the Jack Daniels, the child in Nya who wants to do the right thing by her son but needs instructions from him to get it done, the wounded woman who is trying to figure it out. I see her pain and feel it in not being able to do something well. I see her childlike emotional life. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all sad and depressing, of all the characters I have played, she is the most colorful, the most solid, I feel her heart beating in me in a real transfigurative way.
You can be grief stricken and not be grieving all the time. I think thats the hope of humanity. That’s the strength of what Dominique wants to say with African-American mothers.
That is the dichotomy we are hoping to show. The nuances of what it means to put yourself together and feel yourself cratering, and then put yourself together again and feel it crumble even more... crying about the fact that you’re going to lose something very important if you don’t figure it out. That’s the journey of many women.
Motherhood is a huge part of the show and you are a mother to two very lucky children. Talk to us about being a mother.
There isn’t a moment in my life that I feel better prepared to take on the role as in African-American Mother, because now that my own mother has passed away and, like I said, my father passed away, they live in memory and spirit. I have such a deep understanding now of what my mother went through.
The thing that really opened up for me, is not this fear that your child is going to deal with all of these difficulties and challenges, but the courage, bravery, and strength that has to be available to you. What you have to muster-up, in order to keep them on track. This play, this role, is more Medea, more of a Greek tragedy role than it is about deep fear and anxiety. The strength of the argument isn’t in the fear that something is going to happen to our children, but the strongest desire to have them survive, to see them strive for excellence and find purpose.
I always wanted to be an artist and actor that saw my children grow up as my career developed, I wanted them to see me in the process of creating a life and articulating myself, I didn’t want to wait until it was almost too late to have kids. My mother had five children, was getting her masters degree in science at Fisk University, so for me to be pregnant and going to grad school was part of the my DNA. In real terms its messy, I decided that there was great value in building their character in that way.
I decided that I would be in process and bring these humans along to see me processing it, because I thought there was great value in building their character in that way.
Talk to us about the unique experience that comes with working with a black female playwright and director? What did you all discover together?
I must say, both Dominique and Lileana really lifted me up as an actor and as an artist in a collaborative experience. The great part of working with two African-American women is, you already have a [shared] language that you can speak, and a deep appreciation for one another. To have gotten this far, to be at Lincoln Center Theater, we each had an understanding and respect for what it took for each one of us to get here.
Also, they don’t mind a conversation around emotion. As women we lead often with emotion, and sometimes working with men you have to armor up; You have to cover fragility in order to work in the world and be heard. From that openness, it then becomes about making your vessel available to collaborate with two people who have differing perspectives on what needs to be done and being an actor in service to the play and the playwright.
Together we are all hoping to translate what Dominique, as a playwright, wants to say. That was one of the great things about working with Lileana in particular, she was already having that conversation from the beginning, "we a here for Dominique." The great part about working with Dominque was she was prepared to listen, she was open hearted, and really listenened for what she wanted to say with the play. She made sure that what she experienced in the hearing of the play was what she wanted to say... and she stayed committed, focused, and determined to [say it]. It helps the [me, as the] actor have a clear cut road of what I need to accomplish by the end of the process.
... All my son's life, I thought there was space for him. A little opportunity and education and he'd be complete, but members of the Board, I'm here to tell you that I miscalled. Omari's actions aren't his bag alone. They're mine. All of ours... this rage is not his sin. It was never his sin. It is his inheritance.”
The show talks about things we inherit from our ancestors as black people. Talk to us about this idea and then tell us what are things you believe to have inherited from your ancestors and how do they affect your view of the world?
In a lot of shows we talk about the collective ancestral history of what we have been through and what we are going through in this country. It is not by accident that the playwright has chosen Native Son by Richard Wright, why she is choosing black revolutionary poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, these culturaly elite African- American writers have been talking about this for decades. This is not the first time we’ve heard a story about a young man who has found himself trapped by his anger and his rage, because of the circumstances he is dealing with in society. I believe she is not just talking about Omari’s inheritance but America’s inheritance.
My great –grandmother was Native American and her husband died when she was young, they had 7 children. My paternal grandfather died when my grandmother was in her 30’s, leaving her with 8 children at the time. I didn’t plan it this way, but now I can’t see it being any other way. I love a challenge. The best part of my inheritance is the strong women[ in my life] who worked to survive and thrive and keep their children and their world moving forward.
When do you feel the most BOLD?
When I give myself permission. When I don’t wait for someone else, but give myself permission. It’s not about be demanding, it’s about saying , "this is where I am, this is where I need to be, and [letting the] world respond to that." I took me too long to get there. I needed permission from my partners, I needed permission from my children, I needed permission from my agent, I needed permission from a director. I know I am doing it earlier than my mother did and I think my daughter will do it even sooner.
Thank you Karen for taking a seat At the Table. Your vulnerability both onstage and in sharing your life through this interview is truly what being BOLD is about! Do yourself a favor and go see Pipeline.
PIPELINE"by Dominique Morisseau directed by LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ
MITZI E. NEWHOUSE THEATER150 West 65th Street
Previews: Thursday, June 15, 2017
Opening: Monday, July 10, 2017 Through Sunday, August 27, 2017
Cast:Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Karen Pittman,Namir Smallwood, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Heather Velazquez
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
For more information, please contact: Amanda Kaus Publicity Associate at firstname.lastname@example.org