Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

The 35-year-old wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do, he tells Susie Mesure

Ochi is a small West Indian joint on the Uxbridge Road, just down from the Bush Theatre in west London. It's here, amid the fumes of fried patties and jerk chicken, rather than in the packed auditorium of another sell-out show, that Madani Younis dreams of success. Specifically, on a wall crowded with famous faces, from Rihanna and Damian Marley, to Lennox Lewis and Lenny Henry.

That's because Younis, who took over from Josie Rourke as artistic director at the Bush two years ago, is interested in more than just five-star reviews. "The real sign of success for me, at a deeply personal level, will be one day us appearing on Ochi's hall of fame." Note the "us"; Younis is not the sort of guy to chase the limelight. No, the mugshot matters because Younis is keen that his Bush Theatre should exist "not in isolation, but in our community", something he regards as part of a process of "shortening the gap between art and life." And those autographed photos are "clearly all important cultural figures" to Ochi's Jamaican owners and the locals coming in for lunch, which means making the wall would cement the Bush into the neighbourhood's "consciousness", according to Younis.

If last week's press night for Perseverance Drive, the Bush's latest show, which Younis himself directed, is illustrative, he has some way to go before hitting his goal of making the theatre's "inside like the outside". At best, perhaps 10 per cent of the packed house were black or minority ethnic, despite Robin Soans's play starring an eight-strong black cast. That said, most London theatres would kill for a similar statistic. Then again, most theatres aren't run by people like Younis, who, with his Trinidadian mother and Pakistani father, represents the new normal in London: census data suggests half of all young people will be of dual heritage within 20 years. Younis himself ended a drought in the capital by becoming London's first non-white artistic director when he took the job at the start of 2012, although the Tricycle's Indhu Rubasingham followed five months later.

Josephine and I Josephine and I Taking the job was a tricky call because it meant leaving not only Freedom Studios in Bradford, a theatre company he set up, but also his home and, for weeks at a time, his wife, a defence solicitor, who has stayed behind to work. "She's a very strong woman, and I feel I'm the subject of her narrative, she's certainly not the subject of mine." The commuting (he stays in Watford, where he was born and grew up, while down south) will have to stop soon enough, though, because the 35-year-old would like a family. "It would help if we were in the same place at the same time to try and make that happen," he grins, his face topped and tailed with a black quiff and goatee.

That notion of narrative has dominated Younis's life, not least because his mother was a former English teacher, although after emigrating to Britain she worked as a nurse, and later in a supermarket (his father drives a post van for the Royal Mail). She got him reading books that opened up the world: work by James Baldwin, V S Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And especially Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man, made him realise he'd spent chunks of his life "perceiving of myself not through my own eyes, but through the dominant culture, and that is a really f***ed-up place to be … the subject of someone else's story … When I work in theatre, I'm always reminding myself that we cannot see ourselves through the eyes of someone else."

Perseverance Drive, which opened last week Perseverance Drive, which opened last week Today, this drives his quest to find new writers that reflect Britain's diversity, and to give audiences and actors something to which they can relate. "That's why we have plays like Perseverance Drive, why Disgraced [about Islamic extremism], and Josephine and I [based on the civil rights campaigner and performer Josephine Baker] are so important to me, because ultimately you can go into a drama school today and lecturers will say to me they struggle to find texts for their non-white actors.

"I think it is incumbent upon me and other cultural institutions to be making work that feels tangible."

Aspiring playwrights take note: Younis wants scripts that "celebrate our city [and] embrace the plurality of those that we live alongside. [But] I read plays on a daily basis and unless it is stated that a character is of Chinese heritage, or black, or Asian, the assumption is that they are white British." He wants writers to think about actors such as Leo Wringer, who plays the father, Eli, a Pentecostal pastor, in Perseverance Drive – "so seasoned and a joy to work with" – when writing parts.

He doesn't, however, want to be a "single issue" artistic director, pointing out he's also put on plays such as actor Rory Kinnear's acclaimed writing debut, The Herd. And yet, when I ask if he feels like an outsider, it strikes a nerve. "Do I feel like an outsider?", the question forcing him to pick rather than pour out his words for the first time.

Disgraced Disgraced "I think that as an artistic director you are offering a vision to a building, and hopefully trying to invite a broader group of artists and audiences to go on that journey with you. Um ..." another lengthy pause. "Do I feel …? Look, I think it is noticeable that I can sit in meetings with other ADs, um … Oh God, do I want to say this? I mean, sometimes, the tension for me is that when one talks of culture and the world, the particular part of the world that I work in, my world becomes so white, so quickly at a particular level.

"Don't get me wrong, those men and women in those spaces are amazing and talented and inspiring, and have looked out for me since I've been here, but nevertheless, in my spirit, I still ask myself, 'How, in 2014, is this still cool?'"

The last thing he is about, however, is hiring or promoting on race grounds alone. "Oh..." cue another tortured sigh as he wrangles over whether or not to say what he thinks. "Look, I need the liberal guilt of the arts like I need crack. Do you know what I mean? I don't need it. I don't need tokenism. I don't need symbolic gestures. I just want an attitude, man, a different attitude."

He loves that being different – "I am not cut from that cloth of being an Oxbridge-educated artistic director. I'm not middle class" – makes him accessible to people like himself, whatever their race. He is proud of the frequent interruptions to his busy schedule by people who turn up and ask to see him: young playwrights, directors, students, artists.

Perseverance Drive, which opened last week Perseverance Drive, which opened last week "I love that they know, do you know what, he's cool like that, he's going to give you some time." Contrast that with his own experience writing unanswered letters to people running places like the Bush. "I just found it impossible to penetrate these spaces."

Stories like this help to explain why Younis wins awards such as the Groucho Club's Maverick award, for which he was nominated by members of the public. They also explain why it's so important his theatre is also accessible, both financially, keeping ticket prices cheap for local residents, and by picking plays that resonate. Take Perseverance Drive, which on paper is about one religious family in Barbados. "In old language, in old money, it would have been a Black Play. And my view is f*** that. F*** that all day, because this is a family drama as the day is long. Maybe elements of the Pentecostal church will feel otherly to you, but the challenges of this family are universal, in my opinion."

His own family must have had its share of challenges, combining his mother's Presbyterianism with his father's Muslim faith. And he is all the richer for it, for "always being forced to look at the world from a different vantage point".

I'm left ruing the inadequacy of having two British parents, although the last thing Younis would want is for me, or anyone, to think about race in such a "siloed way", to borrow his own phrase.

After all, as my own trip to Ochi after we finish up confirms, those famous faces aren't all black. I only hope for both his sake and that of future generations that Younis's will one day join that pantheon, patty grease and all.

Curriculum vitae

1978 Born in Watford.

1997 Graduates in film studies from Southampton University.

2000 Studies in Birmingham for an MPhil in playwriting before working at a theatre in Trinidad.

2001 Becomes director of the Asian Theatre School, for the Red Ladder Theatre Company, Leeds. Writes and directs Streets of Rage, about the Bradford riots, performed in Leeds and Bradford.

2003 Writes and directs Free World, in collaboration with Studio Theatre, Damascus, performed in Leeds, Bradford and Manchester.

2006 Awarded the South Bank Show Arts Council Decibel Award. Moves to Bradford to start his own theatre company, Freedom Studios.

2007 His short film Ellabellapumpanella, commissioned by the UK Film Council, screened at Cannes.

2010 Writes and directs The Mill – City of Dreams, at Freedom Studios.

2012 Joins the Bush Theatre as artistic director on 1 January.

Tim Bliss

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