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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment