Spring has finally come to New York City and the streets of Greenwich Village are humming with activity. Beneath the pink cherry blossoms and NYU’s signature purple flags, joggers, dog walkers, street performers, and commuters begin their evening. Inside Think Coffee, a popular cafe for students, it practically buzzes.
Within this activity, in the middle of the line, Kendell Pinkney unhurriedly and patiently waits to order his medium coffee.
Having spent a childhood singing with the Texas Boys Choir, followed by training at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, followed by a year pursuing Jewish Studies in Israel, Mr. Pinkney, now 26, is graduating from NYU with a Master’s Degree in Musical Theater Composition. He is also poised to be the next original voice in comedy and sketch writing.
Amid the chatter and whirring of steamwands, at a table tucked away in the corner, as an Emeli Sande song played, I asked Mr. Pinkney how he classifies himself as an artist. Without hesitation, he answered “a writer.” Pinkney continued: “My background is in music, I was in a boys choir for 8 years … I studied classical music at Oberlin Conservatory, but I get the most joy out of writing words.”
Noting a personality that tends to seek and find new interests to explore, writing for Mr. Pinkney serves as a way to express whatever obsession he is working through—a highly personal experience without any self indulgence.
Take, for example, “Jerusalem Gold,” Pinkney’s original hip-hop musical. Conceived from a class assignment to come up with musical theater ideas, Pinkney had not particularly planned on writing the piece, but asked himself “What do I know about?… I know about being in a boys’ choir in south Dallas… and I know about living in Israel.” Added were the witnessed struggles of Ethiopian Jewish friends and “Jerusalem Gold” was born. It also got him into NYU.
Extremely focused when discussing his work, nothing about Pinkney seems accidental, but comedy writing wasn’t always his goal. A self-confessed “classaholic—If there’s something you can take a class in, I’ll take it,” he says—Pinkney took a sketch writing class in an effort to sharpen his comedy skills for a specific project, and found that it might be the perfect fit.
For Pinkney, the appeal of comedy is its brevity and immediacy. As a comedy writer, it’s about “getting in there quick, being funny and getting out.” It also presents “the most subversive” way of allowing him to explore topics. Take for example a class assignment to write something political, a topic Pinkney is generally adverse to. But the emotion associated with politics is much more appealing.
Admitting that much of comedy writing is merely about just telling a joke while he prefers to write about “things that make me scared or make me angry,” Pinkney created a musical satire mocking the political divisions about America’s love/hate relationship with President Obama, through the conceit of a faux-discovered video at Fox News. An audience member fell out of his chair laughing, so Pinkney is clearly onto something.
Talkative and engaging, Pinkney paused when asked what his ideal project his, the work he is meant to do as an artist. Looking about the coffee shop to collect his thoughts for a moment, he offered: “I know that I want to work with stories, things that mean something to me, putting that out there. … I never feel that I’m part of a group; that I’m always on the margins. I’m not a comedy nut. I think ultimately the work that I want to do will consistently come from that place of what scares me and exploring what angers me and why.”
Long term, Pinkney plans on working in television as a writer. In the short term, he plans to hone his skills in New York sketch comedy. Having taken sketch writing classes, he is currently studying sitcom writing and recently began writing for PITtv, the sketch podcast produced by the People’s Improv Theater. We parted ways on the corner of Mercer and 8th—Pinkney had errands to run and work to do. If what he’s accomplished in 26 years is an indication, we have a lot to look forward to.
What does it mean to be a writer in New York City?
Click here for some of Kendell’s thoughts on being a New York City writer.