#GirlBOSS: Danielle Pinnock, Creator of 'Body/Courage'


Some entertainers simply perform. Others touch your heart and soul. When I first saw Chicago playwright and actress Danielle Pinnock perform at an event for the Chicago Foundation for Women, I was in awe. The panel topic was about the importance of positive body image and Pinnock treated the audience to an excerpt from her one-woman show aptly titled Body/Courage.

Her depiction of a chubby little girl who didn't fit in with her classmates hit close to home. Attending a predominately Black elementary and middle school and listening to *NSYNC and Britney Spears didn't make me popular among my classmates. And neither did skipping a grade. I wanted to learn more about this little girl and, as a result, Danielle Pinnock.

In this interview, Pinnock chats about what it means to be courageous, how being a Black woman has affected her body image and much more.

The performance you gave at the CFW event was truly touching. Was this based on your personal experience or one of the interviews you'd conducted?

It was from an interview I conducted with a 12-year-old girl from Chatham [a neighborhood in Chicago]. She reminded me a lot of myself when I was that age. How would you describe your personal journey with body courage?

Well I can't give it all away because you all will have to see the show. But what I will say is as a kid I was at odds with my body because of the familial pressures of growing up in a West Indian family. Conducting these interviews and listening to the stories of others have helped me stop the chase to find beauty in such a powerful way.

The #BlackGirlMagic movement is huge right now. How has being a Black woman influenced your body image and self-esteem?

I love #BlackGirlMagic! It feels like a secret club just for us to celebrate each other's accomplishments, strengths and how gorgeous our melanin is! I love being a Black woman, I would never have it any other way. I love that my hair grows up to the sky. I love that my skin is golden brown. Living in this country our skin is not celebrated as much as it should be. The movement is necessary!

I understand Body/Courage began as your master's dissertation. What inspired you to tackle this specific topic?

I was tired of not seeing on stage people who either looked like me or were telling the stories that were important to me as an artist. There was a lack of representation. In undergrad, I trained in documentary theatre at Temple University in Philadelphia. When I was preparing for my dissertation at Birmingham School of Acting in the United Kingdom, I knew that I wanted to focus on gathering diverse body acceptance stories that rarely, if ever, had been shared on stage.

So how did Body/Courage the play come about?

The workshop of the show was previously titled The Body Image Project and the name changed to Body/Courage in 2014 when I decided to include my own body acceptance story as a through line between the interviews I conducted.

It's such a powerful, all-encompassing title. What does body courage mean to you?

When interviewing over 300 people worldwide about their personal body image stories, the act of sharing is courageous in itself. I have heard a lot of tough stories from people dealing with eating disorders, sexual abuse, addiction and terminal illness. A lot of the people interviewed for this show were strangers and now have become a part of my life as a storyteller. It is quite magical when people see me portraying their stories on stage in front of an audience. It is so cathartic for all of us in that moment.

That's wonderful. I think part of body courage involves how we interpret beauty, or at least societal ideals. How do you personally define beauty?

After working on this project for five years, I have learned that the word "beauty" cannot be contained because it has such a diverse meaning to everyone. Beauty can be an enemy to some and inner peace to others. My definition of beauty, today and in this moment, is being able to live life with no regrets. Living is beautiful to me, not how much Nars makeup I can stuff in my purse. Beauty is waking up in the morning grateful to see another day and to experience the world differently for another moment.

I love that definition, I'm going to borrow it! I think beauty, in that view, requires courage. How can we be more courageous in our day-to-day lives?

Women and men can be more courageous once they understand the power they carry as human beings. Ernest Hemingway one said, "Courage is grace under pressure." Once I was able to address my fears, then I started to combat them head on.

Danielle as multiple characters, credit Nathanael Filbert
Danielle as multiple characters, credit Nathanael Filbert

What is the most courageous thing you've ever done and how did it change your life?

Sharing my personal body image story in this play. No one knows the full details of my life and how I got to the point I am today. Body/Courage is changing my life every day in performance, because I am able to see the body image patterns that were created from a very early age. I hope that my story and the stories of others in Body/Courage can inspire the audience.

I know what you mean. Telling other people's stories is one thing. Being open and honest about your own experience is another. What is the best career advice you've ever received?

My mom always gives me the best career advice. I learned how to hustle and create opportunities from my mom. She told me "always have something of your own." She is a self-made, very powerful and amazing immigration attorney. I saw my mom start from the bottom and raise me as a single parent while putting me through private school. She had a travel agency in our attic to put herself through law school and I saw how hard she worked. In this industry, I have learned to become plural. I have learned to work in all mediums of entertainment because there are times when no auditions are available. Body/Courage has certainly kept me busy these last five years.

You make an excellent point about working in all mediums of entertainment. What advice do you have for aspiring actresses?

I was a casting intern at Cindy Tolan Casting in New York City. Cindy is one of the top casting directors in the country. As actors we constantly play a comparison game between each other. What Cindy taught me is that the casting process has so many different levels to it and, at times, it can be the luck of the draw. Stop comparing yourself to others NOW. There will be times when you do not book a gig and don't let that be the end of the world. Keep creating and make your own projects. You never know where those will take you.

That's great advice for anyone no matter what industry you're in. What words of wisdom would you share with your 17-year-old self?

You are beautiful just the way you are.

Body/Courage is playing in Chicago now until February 27 at the Rivendell Theatre. For more information about Danielle Pinnock and Body/Courage, please visit bodycourage.com.

Photo credit: Nathanel Filbert