In conversation with Winsome Pinnock: 'One Under' and the accessibility of theatre

Winsome Pinnock has been described by the Guardian as 'the godmother of black British playwrights' - and for good reason. Her play 'One Under' has recently been revived by production company Graeae, who showcase the talents of deaf and disabled actors at centre stage. Rory Cameron had the opportunity to speak with Pinnock about race, […]

Rory Cameron
13th November 2019
image: David Burns

Winsome Pinnock has been described by the Guardian as 'the godmother of black British playwrights' - and for good reason. Her play 'One Under' has recently been revived by production company Graeae, who showcase the talents of deaf and disabled actors at centre stage. Rory Cameron had the opportunity to speak with Pinnock about race, representation, and accessibility in our theatres today.

It’s been nearly 15 years since you first wrote One Under - is there anything that you hoped people might take away from One Under viewing it today, in 2019?

Well, that's a big question - when you write a play you want to provoke thought in people, maybe make them feel something, or connect to the characters you've created. But it's interesting that the play was written 14 years ago and at the time, people didn't really talk about mental health in the way that they do today. So when you're writing in that kind of context, then it's very difficult to find a language…because A, how do you inform yourself about the subject in order to write the play, and B, how do you find that language that will give people access? So that's a really big change that's occurred in the intervening years, in that people do talk more about mental health at all levels of society, and it's difficult to answer that question because the play is what it is, written when it was, when there was a big stigma attached to it. For one of my characters, being a young black man, the way which mental health issues were dealt with…were kind of non-existent, and we see the legacy of it, a sort of criminalisation of a generation, basically - and I'm happy that now there's now a complication about looking at the difficulties within certain communities at seeing and hearing about mental health issues.

You're right, and thankfully attitudes have changed enormously; it’s something we need to be more open about and aware of as a society, but it feels like we are moving in the right direction, at least, in terms of inclusivity and awareness. In terms of Graeae, who are very inclusive in putting on productions with creative captioning and audio description, what more do you think should be done in the theatrical domain to be more inclusive of those with mental or physical disabilities?

Working with Graeae is really good for writers, as it changes your own awareness. And this is a revival, so I haven't specifically written One Under for Graeae as such...but I know that other writers have become very aware of this issue and have included deaf or disabled performers in their work, and I think what they have allowed me to understand a little bit more is the way that institutions or structures contribute to perpetuating disability, so things like the captioning and audio description, those things should actually be very normal and always happen in theatre - there should always be access. It's about us changing our whole way of thinking - and I think we're starting to see that in various institutions, even thinking about gender neutral toilets, the whole of society is re-thinking itself so that even a physical space - well, especially a physical space - is easily accessible and welcoming, so it isn't just seen as what people talk about as 'white spaces', [and] you disrupt that notion of theatre is 'for'. And the captioning in this play is so beautifully done, the design is so wonderful because it's seamlessly integrated into the production, it makes absolute sense, and it arises from the language of the play, so it shows you how you can find creative ways of doing this that are aesthetically interesting as well as necessary.

image via David Burns: Full One Under cast L-R: Reece Pantry, Claire-Louise English, Evlyne Oyedoken, Stanley J Browne, Shenagh Govan

You touched upon how we've overlooked some of these issues in the past in reference to disability, and given that your play is focused on the black British experience, do you think in terms of this experience are we still today quite naive in thinking we have done all we can do, and are living in a 'post-racial' world?

I can't speak to the experience of disability, but I know that Graeae chose my play not because it was written about disability but because they choose plays that disabled performers might find interesting to perform. In terms of living in a post-racial society, there's so much work to do and I can't go into what that work would entail in this interview, because we couldn't even scratch the surface - you see it all around you, the ways in which we are conditioned actually to not see the ways in which some people are discriminated against; but if you're a person of colour then that's not that subtle. I will mention the fact that people who don't have my experience of the world, and don't have a black skin, may actually be completely ignorant of the efforts of sections of society to do that. And the people to whom that pertains need to be very humble, and need to listen, and be open, because people who do have this experience have a lot of expertise and wisdom, and they need to be at the centre of theatres’ diversification - you can't do that unless the people you are politically helping are at the centre of your institution. We're talking about huge cultural shifts and you need people who know what they're talking about making those changes: when people talk about statistics or numbers of how many playwrights do this or this many plays have done this, I don't think this has anything to do with numbers, it's a deeper problem than that. [One Under] shows something that, strangely, is quite difficult for people to watch in many ways, which is people across racial divides connecting with each other;I think people expect to see very clear black and white lines drawn between people in plays, [but] One Under is about is encouraging people to create alliances rather than be antagonistic.

A lot of your plays speak about what it is to be first and second generation of immigrants here in the UK.  As you yourself are of the second generation Windrush are you able to see any parallels between the stigma and tension over immigration back in the 50s/60s and the tensions that we see today regarding immigration, the refugee crisis and the Brexit border debate, and how we might avoid the mistakes of the past?

It's very different, because people who came here in the 50s were British subjects...and, actually, I can only speak to my experience of that, but they very much saw themselves as British people, they were going somewhere they thought would embrace them, saw it as 'the mother country', and many of them (although you can't just [generalise] people together) had a great loyalty to it. So to see the Windrush scandal played out in the way it has is really indicative of what I was saying earlier about people not really understanding history at all, and us not working to rectify historical atrocities and sweeping them under the carpet…But I'm a playwright, and I know that my plays aren't going to change the world, but they can ask questions, and challenge people to think differently, I can be quite provocative with plays, and even subtlety - and One Under is a subtle play - can be a provocation; and that's my kind of contribution to any on-going debate about immigration.

In One Under, I found the interpersonal relationships between these characters very interesting, especially between Sonny and Nella, who despite being an adoptive mother and son, seem to know so little about each other in many ways. Would you say this is mainly because of race, or does it go much deeper than that?

I think if someone has some sort of mental health crisis, it's very difficult to know them, to understand them sometimes, that can become a very individual experience and what's going on inside someone is difficult to know. There are all sorts of questions that the play poses, and that's deliberate, I think it's for people to ask and answer those questions, or talk about themselves...because it's all there, there's clues in this play, there's subtle indications to the questions one might want to ask, and some are contentious, and the play deliberately avoids making a declaration about them.

I found myself wondering, with Sonny as an adoptive mother and trying to find out what happened to her son, if there was a sort of allegory of her as a maternal figure almost as a nation trying to find out what happened to this generation of people, and trying to bridge this racial divide because she doesn't seem to know Sonny in the same way that our country doesn't know the Windrush experience, it's neglected and overlooked.

Yes, and beyond this, I think education is absolutely key, as immigrants who came over in the late 50s would mostly have had a colonialist education, and some would know little about themselves, in terms of their own history. I remember being told they would study geography of the UK, not their own country, and that the landscape of the UK would be imprinted on their minds before they came here - they'd study all the leading poets etc., - so that continually conditioned them against themselves. That generation of writing retrieved this history and identity through their work.

Identity seems to be at the heart of it all, this discovery of what we are and what the people around us are, in their own private lives, because essentially that is what we don't know.

Yes, and also people who might - I don't know what other word to use - call themselves 'white', also have to understand who they are, because if they've been educated to think of themselves a particular way, there's a real blind spot there, because there is a lack of knowledge leads to a lack of real self-awareness and that's what makes it difficult to really understand and connect, or even just sympathise with, other people. That's something that strikes me so much - the inability to sympathise or see other people or hear them, or understand what they're saying, and that is evident in institutional racism, this is what that means: the inability to comprehend what happened at all, if one hasn't been educated enough to really see the world that one is inhabiting, and the behaviours or attitudes that one has inherited at a local or interpersonal level.

For someone who hopes to be a writer like myself, and anyone reading this interview at university, are there any tips you may have for budding playwrights?

A lot, really! But mainly just to be bold, and courageous - theatre seems to have trends and fashions in terms of what you say and how you say it, but I think that people have to be strong enough to write about the world as they perceive and experience it, and as you write the form of the play will take shape. You have to trust that, and really this idea of just splurging words onto the page, and then stepping back and having a look at what's come out, there's real value in that - it's hard to that without censoring yourself, what with the world in your head, and all of us have to struggle with that: it's not an easy thing to do, but you have to try a bit every day - you won't do it all at once!

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