A broad church in Brixton

First she was an athlete. Then an actress. Now the formidably energetic Josette Bushell-Mingo is set to launch a multiracial theatre in South London. By Clare Bayley
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"Flights to Jamaica! Jersey! Dublin!" reads a faded sign above a defunct Brixton travel-agent, now a chip shop. The promise may not be altogether reliable, but the sign accurately reflects some of the diversity of London's once notorious district. Nowadays Brixton is a little haven of cosmopolitan living in south London, with its pavement cafs and small businesses, its bohemian mix of aspiring musicians and writers mingling with the incense-sellers and Seventh Day Adventists in the famous market, piled high with cassava, mangoes and other tropical produce.

Until this week, however, Brixton had one serious lack: no theatre. The last major Brixton theatre, a 2,500-seater, was closed by bombing in 1945. On Thursday, this sorry state of affairs will be rectified when the Brix officially opens its doors. Just over the road from the Fridge nightclub, within spitting distance of the Ritzy cinema (reopening as a five-screen complex in 1996) and a short jog away from the recreation centre and the Academy, the Brix is situated within the imposing structure of the converted church of St Matthew. It is being run by the same team that ran the Shaw Theatre, before Camden Council sold the building to a property developer.

In the past, this address has hosted the Brixton Village theatre, and showed occasional productions of Jamaican farces. More recently a regular Tuesday evening cabaret night, CabaRave has established itself, run by Miles Crawford of the 291 Club in Hackney. For the past few weeks a cheeky sign proclaiming "Bread and Wine Now Being Served - (licensed theatre bar serves food)" has been brazenly publicising the building's new incarnation. Now the sign proclaims the opening of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo for her company Aspect Theatre.

A Brixton resident for the past six years, a woman of extraordinary talent and energy, Bushell-Mingo is the ideal person to launch the venue's new regime. She is currently appearing at the National as Cassandra in The Women of Troy, she recently wowed audiences with her startling portrayal of Chet Baker in People Show 100 and she is also known for directing large- scale community projects. There are rumours that she is planning to take over as artistic director of the Brix, though as yet she's making no commitments.

The House of Bernarda Alba may not seem an obvious choice to launch a popular theatre for predominantly black audiences, but Bushell-Mingo's cast embraces a broad cultural and ethnic church: the celebrated black actress Carmen Munroe is joined by a cast of black, Greek Cypriot, Morrocan and Oriental actresses. "I had thought it was a simple issue of colour," reflects Bushell-Mingo (born of Guyanese parents, raised in Plaistow, east London) of her casting policy. "But the number of women who considered themselves to be `of colour', to borrow an American expression, was much vaster than that, and I realised it was a much more complicated issue. People like Anna Savva, who is Greek Cypriot, are looked at twice, just as I am. Because of faith or of culture, people have preconceptions which are often prejudicial. It's the same for all of us."

During a season at the RSC in 1992, David Thacker's controversially cross- cast production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona saw Bushell-Mingo as a black Sylvia with a white father (played by Terence Wilton). "I think it's a question which needs to be thought through for every situation," says Bushell-Mingo. "If you're doing a historical drama set in ninth-century Scarborough, you might decide there wouldn't be any black Vikings around. But I think Lorca would be very pleased to see the cross-section of races in Bernarda Alba. Think of Cuba - a place Lorca loved, and he especially loved the African influences there."

Bushell-Mingo acknowledges but disregards criticism which might expect her to produce solely the work of black writers. "Sometimes the pigeon- holing comes from ourselves," she says and refuses to be restricted in this way. Her classical training gives her a thirst for the likes of Lorca. "I'd always do a classic, because they speak to us now. I can take my own stylisation and embrace it with such a text. Bernarda Alba tends to be seen as a domestic play, but it isn't, it's epic. It has the same size and universality as Greek drama. The characters are personifications: Bernarda is the personification of tyranny, her various daughters are personifications of fear or freedom. There are so many brilliant black actors who should be playing these big classic roles. I received over 250 CVs and I saw just under 200 women for these parts, but you can list the black actresses doing mainstream classical work on the fingers of one hand - Josette Simon, Mona Hammond, Claire Benedict, Denise Wong. Things are changing, but not fast enough."

Bushell-Mingo is a woman in a hurry, in every sense. She used to be an athlete, winning medals in 100 metres, shot put, relay and discus. She was on the starting blocks of a 100-metre race for the under-16 England trials when she had a sudden loss of faith in competitive sport. "There was all this aggression which wasn't going anywhere," she recalls. "It was just about Me and being The Best. But what's the point of being the fastest person in the world, or throwing 4lbs of steel from one end of a field to another?" She quit athletics and signed up for a two-year performing arts course at Barking College of Technology, where she found that she could employ the same physical proficiency to some cathartic end. It is undoubtedly her early physical training that gives her the stamina and control which is the hallmark of her performance work now.

Her Cassandra at the National manages to fill the vast space of the Olivier with the visceral madness of grief, and she leaps from concrete step to concrete step bearing torches with the agility of a fawn. She was unforgettable as a female Chet Baker in People Show 100, conveying the charisma and self-destructive tendencies of the trumpeter using herrich, sweet singing voice, and every muscle in her body. The performance memorably culminated in a dying fall against a glass wall, while another performer outlined her flailing arms and legs in red.

"There were times when I drove myself physically further than I thought was possible. That stamina eventually takes you through to something else. With long-distance running it's called `the wall'. But it's meaningless for me without emotion. Physicality has an amazing effect on an audience. Sometimes they'll clap because of the sheer physical stress and grief they witness on stage. I can get to that point, knowing I have the capacity to come back from it."

Meanwhile, she is bursting with plans for the Brix, which has an undeveloped crypt space which would be ideal for experimental performance work, as well as writing schemes with black and Asian writers. Money, however, remains a problem. Lambeth Council is not coming up with the goods, to the frustration of all at the Brixton Shaw Theatre at the Brix. Tony Doherty of the management team explains: "The programme we had lined up has had to be put on hold, we've got to hire in shows now. But our policy is to reflect the local community: 50 or 60 per cent black work, and a totally mixed package: Asian work, new writing, classics, popular theatre. If it's not funded, it'll just become another white middle-class venue like all the rest." Local Lambeth entertainers are mobilising their forces to form a lobby group called Able, which so far includes the Academy, the Fridge and the Ritzy, Caesars and the Megabowl in Streatham and local restaurants CJs and Tamsins. "Brixton is on its way up," says Bushell- Mingo. "There's an abundance of cultures here - Irish, Turkish, Cypriot, as well as black. Difference is to be celebrated - for me that's crucial - in an environment which allows you to converse and share without losing your sense of self."

n `The House of Barnarda Alba' opens 25 Apr (0171-274 6470). For further details, see listings below