Tuesday, 24 November 2015

She Called Me Mother - a new play by Michelle Inniss

By Catriona Troth
Cathy Tyson and Chereen Buckley in She Called Me Mother. Photo: ©Richard Davenport

A few weeks ago, I caught a livestream of an extraordinary new play – She Called Me Mother. In it, actor Cathy Tyson plays Evangeline, a 70 year old Trinidadian immigrant selling the Big Issue on the streets of London. It was a remarkable performance by Tyson, who held the stage for well over an hour.

Evangeline has been homeless for a long time, searching for her daughter, who ran away when she was just sixteen. From time to time, the daughter slips on stage, speaking into the rift that has grown between them, giving her version of events. But for most of the play, Evangeline is alone with her memories.

“I try not to tink about she too much, ‘cause de pain dem thoughts bring it like a herd of buffalo runnin wild in a field, an I beneath dem foot.”

The play was put on by Pitch Lake Productions – a collaboration between the play’s author Michelle Inniss, actress Cathy Tyson and director Cara Nolan – under the auspices of Black Theatre Live. This trailer on YouTube will give you a taste of the rich Trinidadian vernacular in which the play is written. You can also explore both the language and themes through this Education Pack from Pitch Lake Productions.
Here I talk to Michelle Inniss, and learn more about how the play came to be written.

Hi, Michelle. I believe She Called Me Mother was inspired by a chance encounter at London Bridge station. Can you start by telling us more about that?

Several years ago, I was travelling regularly through London Bridge Station to visit my mother, who was very ill. I kept passing an elderly Afro-Caribbean woman selling the Big Issue. One day, I suppose because my head was full of my mum, when I stopped to speak to her, instead of calling her ‘auntie’ (which is a term of respect for an older woman in the Caribbean) I called her ‘mother.’ Her face lit up. After that, whenever I passed by, she wanted to give me something – some sweets, or a little bit of her food.

The last time I saw her was just after my mum passed away. She noticed I was upset and asked what the trouble was. When I told her, she reached into her trolley, grabbed some change – about £3 – pressed it into my hand and told me I must by flowers for my mother. I tried to say no, it’s okay. But she insisted. So I went to the flower stall and bought a single white rose that still had a drop of water on the petal. I tucked it inside my coat, because it was a cold day, and when I got to the chapel, the drop of water was still there.

After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, and why she was there. I’d never asked her about her story. We’d just talked about the weather, that sort of thing.

After mum died, I couldn’t write. My mentor, Jacob Ross, told me not to worry, just to read or listen to music. Do other things. After about a month, this character woke up and started speaking to me. And it was Evangeline.

What did you draw on to create that rich poetry in Evangeline’s voice?

I think the Trinidadian vernacular has its own musicality. Cathy Tyson has done such a brilliant job of capturing that voice.

Both my parents are from Trinidad. My father loves telling stories. My mother was much quieter, but she had certain sayings – like “I wouldn’t fart on cotton for him to smell,” which she would only say when she wasn’t happy with someone, but which we all thought was terribly funny.

So I was drawing on their voices, and memories of visiting Trinidad when I was younger. And also on the voices of Trinidadian writers - for example, Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance [set in a poor neighbourhood of Port of Spain during Carnival]. I can read the prologue to that over and over again; the music of his prose just conjures up so much.

One of the things that attracted me to She Called Me Mother was that it gave voice of a homeless woman. Many years ago, I worked in a night shelter for the homeless, and I learnt then how many of them having fascinating and moving stories to tell. Why was it important for you to tell that story?

I thought a lot about how homeless people are invisible, how so many people passed her by and never really saw her, or think about their lives or how they came to be homeless. This woman was so much older than most homeless women too.

Out of this, my family started supporting St Mungo’s Broadway. I find the whole idea of not having a home to go back to such a scary thought. And we are not so far away from it, any of us. Things can happen in our lives, and we can find ourselves homeless.

She Called Me Mother is also about domestic abuse – something that straddles all strata of society. Why do you think that came out as part of Evangeline’s story?

It’s so commonplace; it’s a universal problem. But we don’t talk about nearly enough. Like homelessness, it is invisible.

I remember years ago, when we were visiting my husband's family in Spain, there was a couple who had separated and were living in different part of the same house. The husband set fire to the house and killed her. But even then, we didn’t take on board that this was something that women faced every day.

And now, because of the cuts, refuges and other services for women trying to escape violent relationships are being closed down, especially those for women from minorities.

In some ways, Evangeline’s daughter has fallen into the same trap as her mother. But she has also been stronger than her mother. How optimistic are you that her two little daughters will have a better future than either their mother or their grandmother?

From all the research I have done, there is a generational cycle, where women find themselves in abusive relationships very similar to the ones their parents have. But some women have broken that cycle. I wanted Shirley to be the one that broke that cycle. So yes, I’m optimistic.

Tell us about the development of the script. And how did Pitch Lake Production come about?

Cathy Tyson and I went to school together, and we’ve always kept in touch. When I first sent her the script, she was studying for a degree in Drama and English at Brunel University, and she put it aside until she had finished her studies.

When she came back to it, it happened to be when Black Theatre Live were putting out calls for expressions of interest. Everything came together really quickly. Cathy had just been working with a director called Cara Nolan at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool and had been really impressed with her. Cara loved the play too. So we applied, got shortlisted, and travelled up to Derby to make our pitch. And we were chosen!

After that, we had to set up our company, Pitch Lake Productions – and we haven’t really looked back since.

At that stage the play was a monologue, with just Evangeline’s voice. Several people, including Adrian Jackson from Cardboard Citizens [a group practising 'theatre of the oppressed,' working with and for homeless people] suggested that it might be possible to draw out the story of the daughter, Shirley – why she left and what had happened to her.

We were lucky that the grant from Black Theatre Live included the opportunity to spend a week workshopping the play at Clean Break studios. That was really exciting. Another actress [Jen Daley] joined us and we had Trish Cooke working with us as a dramaturge. We focused on the parts of the script where Evangeline talks about her daughter, and played around with the script. Afterwards, I went away and wrote Shirley’s part.

What’s really made it for me has been the audience response – regardless of their background. It’s been amazing how many men have come up to me after performances and said, “I didn’t think you would make me cry.”

People have taken different things from the play – not just about homelessness or domestic abuse, but about the immigrant experience too. Universal stories everyone can relate to.

Do you think She Called Me Mother is attracting a different sort of audience to the theatre?

One of the amazing things about Black Theatre Live is that they are taking plays out into the regions, and doing outreach work to engage with different sorts of audiences.

Hardish Virk did huge amounts of work around audience development in Black Theatre Live's consortium of 8 theatres, speaking to local businesses and community groups about the play. A women's group facilitated by Mashi Theatre and Derby Theatre did some work looking at some of the themes in the play. And Theatre Royal Margate produced a video of some of the local people reading from the script.

Cathy also did a workshop with a group of women from St Mungo’s Broadway – some of whom then came to see the play, as did some of the people who work there.

In a recent interview about the Act for Change project, Meera Syal said "Autonomy is the first stage of revolution." Is that something you identify with? What else could and should be done to give BAME writers and actors better opportunities?

When it comes to the question of diversity in the theatre and the arts, part of me is thinking, why are we still having this conversation? In 2011 I went to a BFI event - British African and Caribbean Women Stars of the Screen. Corinne Skinner-Carter spoke about her career and in the afternoon Cathy, Ellen Thomas and Nikki Amuka-Bird spoke about their careers, roles, stereotypes and the need for more parts for black actors. It was interesting to hear echoes of this in Corinne's talk and the following generation of female actors of colour, so the conversation continues!

In that Act for Change interview, Meera Syal comments about first needing someone to write the parts. Cathy would definitely say there is the aspect of diversity, but there is also the aspect of being a woman and there is the aspect of age. The parts get less and less the older you get. And if that is true for women in general, it is even more true for women of colour. So if there are women playwrights writing parts for older women, that has to be a good thing.

Another aspect of the diversity question is that we found it really difficult to find stage managers and production managers of colour. There are not nearly enough BAME folk in that side of theatre.

So yes, autonomy. But we need each other too. We’ve had an awful lot of support from other people. We’ve had so much goodwill extended to us from all sort of people – Jatinder Verma and Jonathan Kennedy at Tara Arts, Milan Govedarika at Black Theatre Live – it’s just amazing.

Finally, tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline.

I am working on another play this time on the theme of forgiveness and redemption. And, yes, that would be for Pitch Lake Productions. We are such a good team. We calm each other down. We have this way of saying, “bloody hell,” in a very ‘northern’ way. And then, “let’s have a cuppa.”

Cara and Cathy are such hard workers, real grafters and really passionate and creative. I hope that we work together for a really long time.

I’m also working a novel. And trying to keep away from social media – it’s become my little distraction. Even my children are saying, “What are you doing on that tablet, mum?”

The way I work is to write whatever comes, and then I backtrack and delve into research (which is another area where I can get carried away, reading and reading and NOT writing).

I also think it’s really important to keep that constructive critical facility alive. It feeds into your reflection on your own writing too. I am thinking of rejoining my old writers’ group.

This year has been so exciting. So unexpected. So next year I am looking forward to more of the same – I hope!

Thank you, Michelle. We hope so too!

By the time you read this, the final shows of She Called Me Mother in 2015 will already have passed. But look out for its return at the new Tara Arts Theatre in Spring 2016, when they will be raising money for St Mungo’s Broadway.

Michelle Inniss is a writer and Spanish teacher, and has just completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Brunel University. This autumn, her story ‘Whatever Lola wants,’ was published in Closure: a new anthology of Black British writers published by Peepal Tree. She was longlisted for the new playwrights’ scheme, Angle at The Bush Theatre, in 2011, shortlisted for The Fish Short Story Prize in 2010, and in 2006 was runner up for the Penguin Decibel Short Story Prize.

Black Theatre Live is a partnership of Tara Arts, Derby Theatre, Queen’s Hall Arts (Northumberland), Lighthouse (Poole), Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds, Theatre Royal Margate, Stratford Circus (London) and Key Theatre (Peterborough). Black Theatre Live expects to work with emerging and established BAME companies across England to commission and tour high quality productions to the consortia theatres over the coming 3 years.


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