A bare shoulder to cry on

Winsome Pinnock tells Roy Bartholomew about her care for the couriers
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The Independent Culture
Halfway into our interview, Winsome Pinnock bares a shoulder. This is not - I'm assured - a ruse to weaken a particularly fierce line of questioning. On the contrary, the writer whose new play premieres at the Royal Court next week, is keen to demonstrate the marks of a hitherto unheard-of rite of passage. During a trip abroad, she watched a school of dolphins race (a lifelong dream realised). Now two tiny dolphins, lying nose to tail, form a jagged, dark blue zero against her shoulder. "I had them drawn in LA," she laughs. "My Californian friends say they mark my entry into a new phase of womanhood."

A new phase. Are we likely to see a calmer Winsome, less passionate perhaps? Hopefully not. Who can forget the righteous anger of Talking in Tongues or the avid hero-worshipping of US Marxist Claudia Jones in A Rock in Water? In the angry stakes, Mules, the new play, is full of promise. Only here, I surmise, rage is what the ideal audience might be expected to feel: a Brechtian "this shouldn't be allowed to happen" kind of wrath.

Set in London and Jamaica, it tells the story of a young runaway and two down-at-heel Jamaican sisters who fall under the spell of a glamorous drug-runner. For the promise of riches, the girls act as "mules" - couriers who swallow or insert cocaine-filled condoms to smuggle dope through customs. It's also a play about impoverished people who have no special talent or recourse to wider opportunities that may save them from jail. "As such they need sympathy," says Pinnock, nailing her colours firmly.

A few years back she taught creative writing to inmates in Holloway prison. At the time she was writer-in-residence at Clean Break, the production company that commissioned Mules and whose speciality is rehabilitating ex-offenders through theatre. The experience clearly made a lasting impression upon her: she seems set on defending the couriers against the states that punish them. She speaks passionately about the traffickers in Mules, about how she "understands totally" the real-life disadvantages that press such women into crime. "I'm not excusing the crime," she insists. "It's just difficult for people who have never been poor to understand how desperate it can make you feel."

In publicity shots, Pinnock can look severe. In the flesh, though, she seems anything but: kindly rather, and thoughtful, albeit with an oddly mournful air. She was born 34 years ago in Islington, London, the second girl in a family of four. Three years later, her parents divorced. The children remained with their mother, a stern matriarch who undertook to make good Christians of them all - in Winsome's case with partial success. She admits to absconding from church, although close friends still describe her as something of a goody-two-shoes. It's a judgement that embarrasses her. "I do have my vices," she protests. "I mean, I don't drink, smoke, take drugs... but really, I'm not the churchy type."

In her late teens, she toyed with the idea of becoming an actress, but soon found herself being typecast - as a concerned mother-figure. She played a pushy stage mum in a school play and won the Best Actress Cup; she played another anxious mother in Blood, Sweat and Fears, by the Nigerian writer Marie Oshodi; and when TV finally beckoned, it was only to offer the role of yet another worried parent. "I felt then that enough was enough."

By the time she left Goldsmiths in 1982 (with an honours degree in English and Drama), she had decided to write for a living, because of the greater artistic freedom it offered. But she was also attracted to the political implications of play-writing, the chance to "effect some kind of change" in how black people, especially women, were being imagined in drama. And she honed her skills in the mid-1980s by joining the young writers' group led by Hanif Kureishi at the Royal Court.

In her plays, issues of identity, social justice and gender relationships are explored. Winsome Pinnock reveals, with great compassion, how these questions impact on the lives of Black British people. Her new play sees her changing emphasis slightly - at least in asserting that the lead roles in it could be taken by any actress, irrespective of culture or background. Perhaps that's where the dolphins come in - or maybe she was just being playful.

'Mules' previews from tomorrow, opens Tuesday, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1 (0171-730 2554)