Culture Trips

Yvonne Brewster: ‘I wasn’t going to faff around the edges of the fringe’ | Stage

“Fantastic! Because all of us lickkle, and all of us tallawah, and all of us are women,” said Jamaican actor Mona Hammond when Yvonne Brewster suggested a name for her theatre company. Hammond, who had helped found the company, wanted a Jamaican name. Brewster consulted a dictionary on the English spoken in Jamaica, reading the book backwards. “‘Zuzuwapp.’ Oh, that sounds nice. No, that’s giving too much ‘ethnicity’ to the company,” she recalls. “‘Tallawah.’ Sure – my mother always used to say to me, ‘Yuh lickkle yuh know but yuh tallawah – that means you’re small but you’re strong.” Brewster spelled it “Talawa” so the three As would allow for more graphic design play. And Talawa it became.

“In those days there were a lot of black theatre companies but nobody [was] getting any money,” she remembers. “The work was very experimental and very good in many cases, but it was really, really, really fringe”. Brewster became Britain’s first black female drama student when she attended Rose Bruford College in Kent. Told she would never work, she pondered it for a moment and said, “Well, I will!” We both laugh. She continues: “But I’m not going to be faffing around the edges of the fringe. She adds: “if you call me a fringe, that means I’m something you could cut off … you’re not going to fringe me”.

Roger Griffiths (Rudolph Dawson) and Sharon D Clarke (Dolores Hope) in O Babylon! The Musical by Derek Walcott. A Talawa production, directed by Yvonne Brewster in 1988.

Roger Griffiths (Rudolph Dawson) and Sharon D Clarke (Dolores Hope) in O Babylon! The Musical by Derek Walcott. A Talawa production, directed by Yvonne Brewster in 1988. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

What she calls a “happy accident” came one morning in 1985 when she had just left Arts Council England. Although she was their first black female drama officer and held the position for two years, people would assume she was “the help”, saying “do you want the kitchen?” when in fact she was chairing a meeting. She got a phone call from Lord Birkett to inform her that the Greater London Council was to be abolished by Margaret Thatcher and its remaining cash reserves would fund, among other things, projects celebrating the writer CLR James as part of its Race Equality Unit’s arts programme. He encouraged her to apply.

Brewster’s proposal was to produce a version of James’ seminal play The Black Jacobins – to include people who were actually black this time, not painted to look so. Norman Beaton, later famed for his lead role in Channel 4 series Desmond’s, was to play the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture. Thanks to her years at the Arts Council, she knew how to draft budgets and write persuasive applications at breakneck speed. She got the money and the 1986 production was a rip-roaring success, its profits used to start Talawa. What was intended as a one-off project resulted in Britain’s longest-running black theatre company, ensuring black British theatre’s place in the contemporary mainstream. Brewster credits choreographer Greta Mendez, designer Ellen Cairns, production manager Dennis Charles and actor Ben Thomas as all responsible for the company’s success.

Brewster was born in 1938 to an upper-middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica. Her maternal Polish grandfather – whom she called “Ba” – awakened her creativity. A lawyer by profession, he turned to funeral directing because “boy, dem Jamaicans love a nice funeral … and he became very rich”. Ba noticed that of all his grandchildren, Brewster had the “balls” to receive his stern education. It included learning the plot of a Dickens book, singing Ella Fitzgerald’s Lullaby of Broadway and engaging with Shakespeare, which “doesn’t belong to Europeans only, it belongs to the world,” he told her.

Lolita Chakrabarti (Goneril), Ben Thomas (King Lear) and Cathy Tyson (Regan) in King Lear, a Talawa production directed by Yvonne Brewster in 1994.

Lolita Chakrabarti (Goneril), Ben Thomas (King Lear) and Cathy Tyson (Regan) in King Lear, a Talawa production directed by Yvonne Brewster in 1994. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Brewster was admitted to Rose Bruford College aged 17. Driving in a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur to Sidcup, Brewster thought life in England was always going to be like that. “That was the last time I’ve been in a Rolls-Royce”, she laughs. At best, she got roles the props could do just as well. “I never came thousands of miles to play a troll [in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt]!”

Brewster went into directing because she was denied stage roles. In 1965, intending to use her degree, she returned to Jamaica and set up its first professional theatre company, The Barn (originally Theatre 77), in her father’s garage. The company comprised black international graduates, including writer Trevor Rhone and actor Leonie Forbes, who made work about their own experiences. The Barn, she says, was “always sold out”.

In the early 70s, Brewster moved permanently back to Britain, began her professional directing career and tried her hand at film-making. In 1983, she co-founded Carib Theatre, a small-scale touring company for young black people. Brewster found she hated touring; she no longer wanted to do all the directing, rehearsing, booking, driving, packing and unpacking. This culminated in her struggling to find parking space for a van full of props and leaving it the middle of the road with the keys in the ignition, hoping somebody would “teef it”. Tricycle theatre director Ken Chubb returned the van to her and advised her to learn about Arts Council funding.

The Barn theatre in Jamaica was originally set up by Brewster in her father’s garage

The Barn theatre in Jamaica was originally set up by Brewster in her father’s garage

Brewster ran Talawa from 1986 to 2001, a period explored in a new Methuen book. In that time she produced 29 uncompromising productions, in a range of genres, including African, American, Caribbean and British classics – giving black performers overlooked in the mainstream a chance to broaden their repertoire. Accent authenticity training for the actors was paramount for Brewster. This was made possible by bicultural black peoples’ propensity for many accents in their linguistic arsenal – “code switching” depending on the event and ambitions set. Once, Brewster was told by a white director to “walk through the shot the way you people do”. “That stuck with me,” she said. “The actors I worked with came from all over the diaspora – no two alike. It was very important to me that each actor had his chance to find his central voice. Once you find [it], you’re freed of all the presuppositions people put on you.”

In 1993, Brewster was awarded an OBE for her contribution to British theatre. In 2001, the US National Black Theatre festival awarded her its living legend award, and, in the UK, she received an honorary doctorate from the Open University. Did I mention her Bafta?

Yvonne Brewster

Yvonne Brewster

Kwame Dawes’ 2001 production of One Love at the Bristol Old Vic was Brewster’s last. “I was bored,” Brewster cackles. “I’d been at it for so long and gave in – I went into telly”, she adds. Brewster acted on BBC1’s Doctors but then suffered a heart illness.

Now 82, she is currently living her best life in an idyllic cottage in Florence with her husband, compiling black plays for publication. I ask Brewster what changes she’s seen over her career. “A lot of black actors have power now and I hope they use it right to influence the future … I hope Black Lives Matter will last and they will truly matter – and won’t be a flash in the pan.”

Speaking on the coronavirus pandemic, and how it could thwart gains to make theatre more inclusive, Brewster says it will affect everyone, “the money [lost] is never going to come back in the same way”. Privy to precarious lifestyles, Brewster suggests artists use this time to keep their creative light aflame. She has scripts sent to her regularly and says people are doing amazing work, despite the circumstances. “We must use this opportunity to make sure the setback is a step forward.”

Recently, Talawa made the decision to withdraw from its partnership with Birmingham Rep when the latter announced it would use its space to host a Nightingale Court. Talawa said the move threatened “the integrity of the Black Joy season”. Although no longer in contact with Talawa, Brewster has this to say: “Political awareness in a creative situation comes with a price tag.”

To end our two-hour conversation, I ask Brewster what advice she would give to young black artists today. “Look before you leap,” she says. “But don’t be afraid to leap.”

What's your reaction?

In Love
Not Sure

You may also like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *