Yvonne Brewster: “I only do what I want to do now”

Jamaica-born actress Yvonne Brewster on black British theatre and working with C.L.R. James; as told to Nazma Muller

  • Yvonne Brewster, courtesy Yvonne Brewster

When I was about 16, my father took me down to the Ward Theatre [in Kingston] to see a French play, called Huis Clos, written by Jean Paul Sartre. And in it was Mona Chin, who I thought looked just like me. She was fantastic. I looked at this woman and I said, “Hey, Daddy, I want to be like her.”

And he sort of gave me a wary eye. “Oh yeah?”

And I said, “I want her autograph.”

“I am not going into Rum Lane to get anybody’s autograph, thank you very much.”

Anyway, we did. Mona doesn’t remember it, but I still have it.

I decided to do drama after seeing Mona, and I bludgeoned my father until he sent me to the drama school. I did it. I came to England in 1956. I was the first black female drama student to do the whole course — ever. On my first day at Rose Bruford College, I was told, “You know you’ll never work a day in this country?” [Brewster is now a patron of the college.]

But I actually completed my course and I finished in 1959. So I was a qualified actress. Ha! Going back to Jamaica to do what? There was no theatre or anything like that. I have to say Jamaica theatre exists now — it didn’t then. The pantomimes — we’re getting political now — I would see as a young person were full of all these white people on the stage. I can remember when Barbara Lawes was playing the heroine, there was such a fuss because she was so dark! I mean, you know Jamaicans, dem go on with this foolishness, this shade culture. I can remember when the Fowlers were completely in charge — despotic almost. You had to wait for the emergence of people like Rex Nettleford to come and make the thing really reflect the society for which it was intended. At least now there’s a Jamaican theatre.

From a teenager, I was determined that I was going to be in the arts. I got two licences from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, I got my teaching qualification from Rose Bruford. I had more papers than God had dinners, because I knew I had to go back and do some work. I ended up when I first came back to Jamaica in 1960 at Excelsior High School. They had never had a drama teacher. For the first time there was a qualified drama teacher in the grand new hall of Excelsior, which had just been built — didn’t even have any seats. So we did a promenade production. I was also a radio announcer on RJR, doing open house, reading greetings, and doing the news. Then I did the JIS television Saturday magazine, where we used to interview famous people who were passing through Jamaica. And my God, what a fantastic life I was having! I can remember interviewing Jim Brown (ohhh, he’s so gorgeous!), Eartha Kitt, oh gosh, those were the days.

I came back [to England] in 1971 to get married to my husband. We’ve been together 32 years now. I have lived in England probably longer than I have lived in Jamaica. But not a year has passed that I have not spent at least a month in Jamaica, because I am undeniably Jamaican. I will never be anything but Jamaican. I don’t even want to sound English. I can do it, you know, if necessary.

I started to direct plays and act. I was very successful, actually. I did masses of series and things like that. And in the 80s I started Talawa with . . . guess who? Mona Hammond [née Chin]. I love this part of the story, because in my life she seems to be a recurring decimal. She’s a founder member, along with Carmen Munroe. So it was us three black women, roughly the same age. Adding it up, we realised we had 120 years’ experience in theatre between us, so why couldn’t we have a theatre company?

Our first production was C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins. I went to see him. At that time he had started to shake a little bit — he had Parkinson’s, you see — but his brain was still there. My young son was with me, because I didn’t have anybody to leave him with. In the car going down I said to Julian, “It’s C.L.R. James we’re going to see. C–L–R James. He’s a very important man, and I’m really flattered that he should be seeing me. So you have to behave yourself. Right.”

We go up into his room. He’s sitting there and he says, “Come, little man.” He had open in front of him on a kind of lectern a book with a Renoir painting.

“You like this?” he said to Julian.

And Julian was encouraged to look at it, and he said, “Well, it’s grey like England.”

“Yes, but there are different colours. Look.”

And so my son, being quite intelligent, said, “Why do you do this?” And C.L.R. told him every day he spent a certain amount of time looking at classical paintings because it opened his mind.

Then they talked a little more — all now the meeting don’t start yet, you know. “And now,” C.L.R. told him, “I’ll teach you to bowl.”

And he taught him how to spin. He got up out of the chair, almost fell down, and showed him. “Now you put your hand like this on the ball . . .”

Then he said, “OK, now sit.” And Julian sat there like a zip. He didn’t say another word, so we could have our meeting.

Finally, we got to the stage of talking about the politics of the play. I wanted to ingratiate myself with C.L.R. James, because as far as human beings go, I was really a bit knocked out by the idea that I was in the same room with him. So I said, “Well, you know, looking at all the people in the revolution, I think Dessalines has something to say, don’t you?”

And he gave me one look and said, “The next thing you’ll be telling me is

that you admire Idi Amin. Start again.”

I felt about this small, but I thought, Serves you right. You know that this play is about Toussaint. That’s the spirit of the play. It’s not in the butcher Dessalines — it’s in the humility, the vision, and the truth of Toussaint.

And he just looked at me and said, “OK, we’ve got over that. Let’s start again.” And that helped me so much.

C.L.R. James came to see the production. I think he sent a little note afterwards, saying thank you.

O God, girl, I’m glad we did it, because he died soon after that. So in a way the formation of something like Talawa was really to celebrate C.L.R. James.

“He not even Jamaican!” Why don’t you people just piss off? “Not even Jamaican.” You see? We so small. As if because I’m Jamaican I can’t admire you because you’re Trini. A few miles down the road! You know what I mean?

I’m happy to say Talawa’s the best-funded black theatre company in Europe now. With the responsibility of running a big theatre company off my shoulders, I’m just having a bit of fun. I’ll meet up with Trevor Rhone in Jamaica in a couple of weeks, and we’ll talk about working on his new play, and I want to work with a Trinidadian Chinese actress called Jacqui Chan on her one-woman show. And then I’m off to direct A Streetcar Named Desire in California. I only do what I want to do now. I’ve also gone back to radio and acting because I find them less stressful.

You’ve caught me towards, you might say, the end of my career. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I’ll probably still be directing from my coffin somehow.


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