Windrush Legacy: the silencing of past work by artists of colour

Rebekah Ellerby, Digital Marketing Officer, on Leave Taking, empathy and our obsession with the new. She asks: ‘What theatre history do we tell?’

What does it feel like to be a voice silenced in your own country? When I asked playwright Roy Williams, actor Ginny Holder, writer and performer Arinzé Kene, Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre Company, and actor Sarah Niles to talk about the legacy of Winsome Pinnock, I thought I’d hear generous things about her language, her stories and her influence as a playwright. Especially, I thought, they’d reference her impact as the first Black woman to be programmed at the National Theatre and how excited they were that her 1987 play Leave Taking is getting a contemporary revival at the Bush Theatre. And I did. They said all those things.

I didn’t expect to be moved to tears by the impression she’s had on them as readers, actors, audience members and directors. The daughter of working-class Caribbean parents, Pinnock’s words have given a public voice to the specific truths of family homes, upbringing and neighbourhoods that until her were unspoken. Her award-winning plays include Mules (1996), Talking in Tongues (1991) and A Hero’s Welcome (1989). She has recorded a particular generation, and the inception of British Britishness, in the history of dramatic storytelling.

Sarah Niles, who’s playing Enid in Leave Taking, reflected on seeing Mules at the Young Vic: “All these women, black women, that looked like me and spoke how my family speaks – to see those people on stage was mind blowing for me. It just felt like – it sounds crazy – ‘OK I can breathe again as an artist.’” Take a breath. Take that in.

Mules at the Young Vic

Mules at the Young Vic

Ginny Holder played Viv in the 1995 National Theatre production of Leave Taking and said she hasn’t felt anything like the comfort of playing her since. Viv was so real, so carefully formed by Pinnock, that she felt she could “completely identify” with her character. She stressed that word, “completely.” Holder’s got a raft of credits to her name and hasn’t had that since. It was twenty years ago.

This blessing of feeling identified amongst particular audiences and actors, as experienced by Ginny and Sarah, has a sinister flip side. It’s the imposed burden of representation for an entire people group, explored so deeply by Arinzé Kene’s gig theatre piece Misty asking “What is a black play?” and “Who is my work for as a black artist?” Because of course, a play is a play is a play. Kene records asking this question to a friend in the playtext introduction to Misty, “Are you an actress, or a black actress? Is Hamlet a play, or a white play?”

“I think for most black playwrights when you write a play there is unexpected pressure from both sides – from both black and white – for it to be something special,” Roy Williams explained. “It has to speak for everybody. It has to speak for the entire black community, which of course it cannot do.”

Nicholle Cherrie, Winsome Pinnock and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray

Nicholle Cherrie, Winsome Pinnock and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray

What became more clear to me in these conversations was the emotional turmoil of cultural silencing these artists have faced. So often this is given to us as statistics. We analyse the diversity of a season and count the number of artistic directors of colour in our country. The pathetic numbers of books by people of colour gets published each year. These say so much but we need the facts to enter our affective vocabulary too because radical change requires empathy.

“It’s a feeling that I go through mostly on a daily basis. The feeling that I don’t exist,” Niles said, “I still battle with trying to find my place as an actress in British theatre sometimes. I feel having been born here, being British and this kinda being my home – it’s not something I feel 100% confident in saying.”

Referring singularly to the Windrush Generation, Williams said: “They are British, they are British citizens and they were asked – no, they were begged to come here – to help this country rebuild from the war.” Williams continued: “What’s so brilliant about Leave Taking is that it captured that anger. We should’ve moved on and we haven’t. And that’s what makes the play so important now.”

“It’s a feeling that I go through mostly on a daily basis. The feeling that I don’t exist” – Sarah Niles

The context of all this is an irony. Winsome Pinnock’s work, which voiced the Black experience in Britain in a way that’s so affected these artists, has also been subtly erased. Her plays are largely out of print and almost never revived now, while we get the same, mainly white male, playwrights revived over and over again. As Alice Saville recently wrote in Exeunt: “Deciding whose stories we elevate and retell is a political act.” Arinzé Kene spoke to me about the discussion that’s emerging in the industry of past work by playwrights of colour being swept aside. “There is a pattern when you look at the kinda playwrights whose work is forgotten,” he said, “regardless of how critically acclaimed they are at the time.”

As theatre critic and drama teacher Aleks Sierz told me, “Winsome Pinnock has obviously been one of the most significant playwrights of the entire post-war period.” Her example is emblematic of a wider Revival Bias and Recommission Bias in the industry. It’s why Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, announced the theatre’s Passing the Baton programme. Through it, the Bush will revive three plays over three years to reacquaint theatre goers with work by artists of colour that should be canonical. And three younger writers will have the baton handed on to them in a new commission for the main house, alongside mentorship.

Arinze Kené in Misty by Arinze Kené at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray

Arinze Kené in Misty by Arinze Kené at the Bush Theatre. Designed by Rajha Shakiry. © Helen Murray

There is a history of incredible work by people of colour in this country but not nearly as much of a legacy. In particular, we demand the new from them in a way that is not demanded of white writers. “To know that Winsome was one of the first to be commissioned as a Black British female and then not to hear her voice enough is really upsetting,” said Niles.

“There needs to be a thread,” she continued, “We need to know the history when talking about black British experience, cultural experience, even specifically coming from a West Indian perspective. There hasn’t been enough of that voice to continue to the line so that people can understand.”

Writer and actor Trish Cooke sat on a panel after Misty; her point has stuck with me. She said, “We keep on being asked for new writing and new initiatives as though we don’t have a history.” Younis, continued, “We aren’t the first and there were great artists before us. The British culture has a great habit of forgetting artists of colour. And that is a tragedy.”

How many Noel Cowards and Henrik Ibsens and Harold Pinters are we going to see? Don’t get me started on Shakespeare™. I want to see our Winsome Pinnock’s canonised, put on reading lists and established in the National Curriculum. We need, as Lyn Gardner (RIP to her Guardian reign) put so eloquently in The Stage, for the theatre dinosaurs to step aside for a more representative makeup of theatre leadership to emerge. And we have to stop fetishising new work by artists of colour when we don’t do the same for their white counterparts.

“I think that the impact of Winsome’s work is that once again it proves that people of colour can be part of the theatre landscape.” Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre Company said, “That’s what it shows. That you’ve got great stories to be told, that these stories are universal, and that you have a place here. And she’s proven that.”

Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock and directed by Madani Younis is at the Bush Theatre 24 May-30 June 2018.