Homeless, but not rootless

Talawa remains Britain's leading black theatre group, but since Yvonne Brewster moved out of the Cochrane Theatre citing 'artistic differences' , it is a company without a home. By Roy Bartholomew
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The Independent Culture
Yvonne Brewster explains: "In Jamaica, we have a saying, 'She may be small but look how she's talawa,' meaning gutsy, feisty." By her own definition Yvonne Brewster is talawa. Diminutive, inciting, fuelled with a restless energy, she is the artistic director of Britain's leading black theatre group, the company responsible for a range of audacious all-black productions, including King Lear and The Importance of Being Earnest. John Ford's classic play about incest, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, is to be Talawa's next offering. "It's about the power of religion," Brewster says darkly. "It strikes a chord with everybody, regardless of what cultural background they're from."

Four years ago Brewster made history when Talawa became the first black theatre company in Britain to be given its own base. Nearly pounds 500,000 was lavished on renovations to the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Holborn, which used to operate as a practice space for students at the nearby Central St Martin's art school. Billed as a Great Leap Forward for black theatre in Britain, the expensively refurbished building on Southampton Row became, for three years, the focus for a set of ambitious Talawa productions, as remarkable in their verve and scope as the woman director who devised them.

In an interview at the time, Brewster revealed how important it was to have her own base. She said: "Without one, you couldn't develop this hybrid thing called 'black theatre' - you couldn't really discuss what it is." But earlier this year, Brewster quietly yet sensationally quit the Cochrane. Her reasons: after three years and 11 weighty productions, she had arrived at the view that the needs of her landlord, the London Institute (which owns the Cochrane), no longer dovetailed with Talawa's creative leanings. ("Now Yvonne's back doing guerrilla theatre," quipped Biyi Bandele, the award-winning playwright who was writer-in-residence at the Cochrane.)

"I'm not bitter," says Brewster, coolly. "Leaving was really no great deal." But there are reasons why theatre-goers, black and white, should still feel cheated. The Cochrane had succeeded where the Roundhouse failed in offering a permanent home to black theatre. Until Talawa moved into the Cochrane, the Roundhouse - a huge barn of a place in Chalk Farm - stood as a rotting monument to the failure of black theatre to take root in Britain after the deal between the GLC, Camden Council and the Arts Council fell through at the last moment and the theatre was left open to vandals and an uncertain future. So why did Brewster voluntarily leave a venue that offered her and her company a secure base?

Brewster's plan was to lease the Cochrane from the London Institute on a three-year renewable-contract basis (the London Institute is an organisation that has interests in the city's art and design schools). Talawa's productions and events would be scattered throughout the year, while the Cochrane's in-house management (a separate entity from Talawa, which catered for the interests of the Institute's students) would schedule shows that were complementary to Talawa's own. But hugging a hope that the Cochrane's management would not only keep the place up and running while Talawa concentrated on its next production, but also limit itself to Talawa-type shows was - perhaps - a little naive?

"But that was the agreement and it would have worked wonderfully," she says earnestly. "All right, the theatre is on a really awkward corner, not a lot of people went there to begin with, but I really do believe that if everything had gone to plan, together we would have made it work." Instead, she argues, a theatre that was meant to open all year round was dark too often, scheduled programmes didn't always complement each other and, to make matters worse, there was a creeping suspicion in Talawa that not everyone at the Cochrane and in the Institute itself was enamoured of the company's artistic policy. Additionally, there was the matter of crippling rents and, thanks to the move into central London, a shrivelled audience base.

Perhaps, I suggest tentatively, black theatre like hers might in future develop firmer roots in venues already popular with the mass of black theatre-going audiences. By making the most of places like the Theatre Royal Stratford and the Hackney Empire, brash young companies such as The Posse, the BIbi Crew, even Blue Mountain (which specialises in farce), have long exploited an educated, well-heeled black audience hungry for theatre. Indeed, opting for a showpiece in the centre of town might always prove an expensive and wrongheaded miscalculation. Brewster sounds peeved and asks, why should a major black theatre company like hers operate from a cardboard box in south London? "When we launched the Cochrane, a silly chap walked up to me and said, 'Very nice, but it would be much, much better in Brixton.' " She pauses, looking askance. "What's going on here? Even in the black community... there are people who decry us for... for... coming to central London! And there is a lot of talk. Talk, talk, talk. I'm not interested in people who only talk. I'm interested only in people who do. A lot of those who criticise should, in fact, come in here and help me stuff some envelopes!"

Brewster is a doer, as even her sterner critics agree. Two years ago she was awarded an OBE for services to the arts. Aside from Talawa, she runs an education programme for children and young adults interested in the performing arts (for which she has enlisted the help of leading black actors and writers Carmen Munroe and Winsome Pinnock). She even finds time to manage - by fax and phone - a thriving Jamaica-based theatre company, The Barn, which she founded in the mid-Seventies.

Ruth Mackenzie, the executive director of Nottingham Playhouse, worked with the director when they were both drama officers at the Arts Council. "Yvonne is my role model," she says. "There aren't a lot of strong women running theatre companies and I think that she is completely brilliant. She's a fantastic artist and extremely important in the development of black theatre. I remember working with her at the Arts Council and she was always approachable, always accessible. She had time for people."

Brewster enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Jamaica, where her parents made a comfortable living running a firm of undertakers. The young Yvonne was sent to a smart boarding school, St Hilda's Diocesan, in Kingston. There she developed what was to become a lifelong passion for European and British theatre. In 1956 she came to England as Britain's first black woman drama student, attending Rose Bruford and the Royal Academy of Music.

It is a dogged devotion to classic European texts and the very best of modern and contemporary black writing that singles Brewster out. Her pin- ups are Walcott and Shakespeare, Soyinka and Wilde. At the level of programming, she takes pride in the fact that Talawa is still attempting a synthesis of the two traditions. Actors who worked with her on the Shakespeare plays blithely recall how she would haul out from nowhere a classical painting depicting images of black figures - in order to hammer home the fact of black people's participation in European civilisation and art.

During our interview she hands me a postcard of The Adoration of the Wise Men by the Italian Renaissance painter Mantegna. It shows the group of travelling kings, brown, white and black, bearing gifts to the baby Jesus. According to Brewster, art such as Mantegna's, which offers a view of the black experience as being intrinsically linked to that of Europe, give her confidence to take on Shakespeare and other work mothballed by criticism as being quintessentially European. "How can anyone say that the classics have nothing to do with people like me?" she declares, indicating the postcard. "There are so many reference points. Look, in this one, even the blessed child looks black!"

Talawa Theatre Company is now based in Farringdon - further east perhaps, says Brewster, but still in central London, "the true home of black theatre". They occupy a spacious third-floor office on Great Sutton Street, and there the ebullient Brewster is carrying on the business of running the company as if losing a building were merely a minor inconvenience, not the morale-denting blow that it might have been for some people. Brewster is resigned to touring Talawa productions - a thing she has always resisted - which is why you will see 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Talawa's first full- scale post-Cochrane production, at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

Brewster may have to spend the foreseeable future knocking on the doors of Britain's theatres, but judging from the response of theatre managers I've spoken to, Brewster will find plenty prepared to let her in. Paula Hammond, the Lyric's head of marketing, speaks for the whole theatre when she describes Talawa's forthcoming show there as "tremendously exciting". She added that Brewster will introduce "a completely new audience to the Lyric". The Cochrane's loss may well the rest of theatre's gain.

'n ''Tis Pity She's a Whore' previews 1 Nov, to 18 Nov, Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London W6. Booking: 0181-741 2311