How We Met: Chipo Chung & Bonnie Greer

'She's very precise; she even sits ramrod straight. I find I pull myself up around her'

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:11

Bonnie Greer, 62

An American-born British playwright, novelist and TV personality and critic, Greer has written stage works including 'Jitterbug' and 'Dancing on Blackwater'. She lives in London

It's not a girly friendship; we don't talk about men or go out and binge-drink or eat or rush around. It's more a meeting of minds; we're bluestockings.

About four years ago, Chipo had finished being a student at Rada and I'd finished being the visiting artist there, and she was introduced to me by a mutual friend, a teacher at Rada. Chipo stood out from the rest. She's beautiful and very grave and I could see a sharp intelligence in her eyes. Nothing about her seemed conventional, which really attracted me.

We started visiting museums together, sitting around and talking about the business and art and meeting at my [private members'] club and having a giggle over a glass of wine.

Being an immigrant is being an outsider, and our outsiderness – along with our shared interest in classical British culture – connected us. And we weren't caught up in the malaise that sometimes occurs when you are a black woman: all the things we have to go through. In the theatre it's not easy for her to be cast and for me it's not easy to be produced, because we are not doing anything conventional, so I loved Chipo's determination to keep going.

We're from different generations, but we both believe the life of the mind and soul doesn't have an age limit, and I've learnt a lot from her. Part of me is quite impatient and jumping up and down to see the next new thing, so her maturity helps me a lot. Sometimes we will be together looking at an object in a museum and I'll break into a fit of giggles and Chipo will scold me, saying: "You should look at it more closely and you will see it really is on a more profound level."

She's quite precise about everything she does – she even sits ramrod straight and I find I pull myself up when I'm with her – and she's built a career around that.

Camelot, the series she's currently in, is a smart thing for her to do. When I was her age I thought I'd just do high art, but I understand more now that you have to build up a track record first, in order for you to do the things you really want to do.

Chipo Chung, 33

A Rada-trained Zimbabwean stage and screen actress, Chung has appeared on TV shows including 'Doctor Who' and in films including 'In the Loop'. She lives in London

The first time I saw Bonnie was on Question Time in 2004. She cut a curious figure as a person of colour surrounded by a bunch of Anglo-Saxon Brits, and she gave a very dynamic performance, taking on issue after issue, and I couldn't imagine having her balls.

Several years later, we met at Rada. Bonnie was in the process of writing an adaption of Hedda Gabler, and invited some of the former drama students, including me, to perform this piece for her. She really gets on with young people – I could see the 15-year-old self in her.

We're both black women from other countries, me from Zimbabwe and Bonnie from the States, so there was a connection there, as immigrants, but I was also impressed with how down-to-earth and friendly she was. I just thought I was going to have a short chat with a playwright, but she wanted to hang out and talk more. And pretty quickly we discovered a synchronicity in tastes.

We both have a love for classical Britain – the legend of Rada, from Vivien Leigh to Kenneth Branagh – and a shared love of the British Museum. We've had some thrilling experiences finding strange artefacts there and, say, discussing our shared love of Ancient Egypt.

Bonnie has also encouraged me to find my voice. We are the two black chicks on the council at Rada (actually we're both committee collectors, on the boards of a number of organisations), and I watch her being forthright and learn how to act. It's hard to be liked when you're a woman and outspoken. And when I had a crisis about a play I was producing, it was Bonnie I went crawling to, looking for reassurance. I think I'm quite bossy and I'd been too bolshy with some young male actors. If I'd been an older, white male I don't think they'd have had a problem, but they took issue with me. Once I started talking about it with her, I felt better: we intellectualised it and I suddenly found it easier to deal with.

When I look at her, I see a weird mirror image; the intellectuals in us are enamoured with the Bloomsbury Set and all the intellectuals who used to buzz about that neighbourhood. We haunt the same neck of the woods as George Bernard Shaw, but reincarnated as black women.

Some people her age think they know all there is to know, but with Bonnie, she learns from younger people – and that's the true wisdom of age.

Chipo Chung can currently be seen in Channel 4's 'Camelot' on Saturdays at 9pm

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