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Josette Bushell-Mingo: ‘I’d love to come back and lead a company or run a building’

Josette Bushell-Mingo. Photo: Robert Day

It has been quite a homecoming for Josette Bushell-Mingo. Not only has she returned (temporarily) to the UK from Stockholm, where she has lived for the past 15 years with her Swedish producer husband Stefan Karsberg and their two sons, to direct a new musical, but that musical is being staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where she started out as a performer nearly 40 years ago.

“The show was something to do with my school, Lister Comprehensive, and I think I had to sing. So I’m very aware that I’m coming home, and that helps me to do my best work,” she says. Bushell-Mingo grew up “down the road” in Plaistow and her mum, a former Guyanese nurse who came to the UK in the 1960s, is buried in nearby St Mary’s church.

Like the heroine of the musical she is directing, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Bushell-Mingo’s journey has been an extraordinary one. It started when she was 18 and studying on a drama course at Barking College of Technology in Essex. The Liverpool-based physical theatre company Kaboodle came to take a workshop with the drama students. It proved to be a life-defining moment for the tyro performer.

“I’d always been into athletics – I had a trial for the all-England shotput team while I was still at school – so I completely got Kaboodle’s physical theatre ethos. I knew instantly I was in my element. After the workshop they asked me if I’d like to join the company. I couldn’t believe it. I sat on the stairs at college, thinking: ‘My God, what just happened?’ My mum wasn’t sure about it because I’d been offered a place at university. But I knew I had to do it. It was like running away to join the circus.”

Bushell-Mingo is strikingly charismatic and direct in person. “That’s an outrageous question,” she mock-berates me when I ask what would lure her back to the UK permanently. You can imagine her as a bossy youngster, organising others into putting on shows at primary school and, once, a mini theatre festival in her parents’ garage. She has the energy, drive and motivation to galvanise an army.

Josette Bushell-Mingo in The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London, in 1999. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The director Michael Attenborough, for whom she conceived the black-led arts festival Push at London’s Almeida Theatre in the early 2000s, talks about her unusual combination of “militant seriousness but with a gorgeous twinkle in the eye”. She can also talk the hind legs off a donkey. Her headmaster at Lister always said she had the gift of the gab, which is no bad thing for the director she was to become.

While her early career was taken up with physical theatre, exploring the teachings of Jacques Lecoq and Jerzy Grotowski, Bushell-Mingo was always keen to diversify. She directed two shows during her three formative years with Kaboodle, and moved on to do memorable work with Complicite, Contact, Talawa, the People Show, a succession of roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the role of Cassandra in Annie Castledine’s unforgettable production of The Women of Troy in 1995. The much-respected Castledine, who died last year, was clearly a massive influence on the young actor-director.

As a performer, she hasn’t shied away from the challenging and, at times, the downright inconceivable. Taking on the role of Elvis Presley, as a young black woman with a shaved head, was a case in point. “It was about shining a torch into an area of Elvis’ life that’s usually ignored, the influence of black music and musicians in his formative years. I wasn’t so much pretending to be Elvis as trying to explore the things that made him what he was. He had a great sense of self-irony.”


Q&A: Josette Bushell-Mingo

What was your first non-theatre job? In a shoe shop in Upton Park.

What was your first professional theatre job? Kaboodle in Stoke-on-Trent in 1982.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Oh, so many. Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, Martin Luther King, Annie Castledine.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback if you don’t get the job. Directors don’t always offer it, so request it.

If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been? A journalist. I write a lot.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? As an actor I like to give myself at least three hours prior to the performance to prepare.

So when it came to playing the seminal role of Rafiki, the wise old baboon in The Lion King, a performance for which she was nominated for an Olivier award in 1999, she had years of physical theatre and casting-against-type to draw on. Though it seemed a million miles away from the kind of low-budget, un-commercial performance art she’d been doing for years, in fact the director Julie Taymor had come up through a similar path of art-for-art’s-sake theatre and the two found they had a lot in common.

“Nobody expected me to do anything as commercial as The Lion King, but Julie Taymor’s approach to directing and performance wasn’t that far removed from my own, only it happened to be more mainstream and with a big West End musical budget. I had the best time on that show, and it started me thinking about opportunities for other black actors and practitioners, which in turn led to Push. I saw there were so many brilliantly gifted black artists out there who weren’t being given the time of day by our mainstream institutions.”

Push was also about persuading London’s black community that the arts were not beyond their reach. She told the Guardian in an interview in 2005: “I get shot down in flames for saying this, but the black community needs to accept that we can be greater than we allow ourselves to be. Admitting that you enjoy opera is not an ethnic compromise. Doing ballet does not make you any less black. I still have aunts and uncles who say: ‘The Royal Opera House? That’s not really for us.’ Push isn’t about colour, it’s about everyone having a chance to express themselves equally.”

Clearly Bushell-Mingo was an early pioneer of what is now called colour-blind casting. Her performance in Braham Murray’s 2005 production of Antony and Cleopatra was described by the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner as “exotic and very dangerous… a drama queen with animal magnetism, she pads around like a great cat pretending to be a pussy”. She refused to be judged by the colour of her skin, only whether or not she was any good in the part.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ali Sichilongo, Josette Bushell-Mingo, Sarah Paul and Tom Mannion in Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 2005. Photo: Tristram Kenton

She has continued to work in the UK at irregular intervals despite being based in Stockholm, where she has brought up a young family. She speaks fluent Swedish, as well as Swedish sign language, and has worked there as an actor and director. She is currently running the Silent Theatre in Stockholm, serving deaf actors, for which she won the 2012 Stockholm Culture Prize.

Working in a predominantly white, male environment – Sweden is not known for its enlightened attitude to addressing institutionalised racism – has not always been easy.

“I operate with Britishness,” she says. “I don’t take any shit. It gives me a huge advantage to speak to people in a way they’ve never been spoken to in their lives. I’m a feisty black British woman who doesn’t take any prisoners. I think some people find my ability to articulate quite threatening and a bit radical. Racist groups have targeted me on social media. Here, we can have an open and free conversation. In Sweden, I sometimes have to hold my tongue, sit back and listen. I suppose you could say I see it as an extraordinary learning possibility. It all contributes to keeping my craft alive.”

Bushell-Mingo in Nina: A Story About Me and Nina Simone at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, in 2016. Photo: Andrew Ness

Last year, she took on one of her biggest acting challenges to date, embodying one of her heroines, the late American soul singer Nina Simone in the solo show, Nina: A Story About Me and Nina Simone, at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool. Apart from the wonderful music, lovingly recreated by Bushell-Mingo, it is a deeply personal reflection on Simone, whose political activism and barely contained rage at the injustices heaped upon her race helped politicise Bushell-Mingo in her youth. She recalls what it was like to see Simone on TV when she was growing up and how she felt as if Simone was singing exclusively to her.

Was it Simone’s shaved head that prompted Bushell-Mingo to shed her shaggy teenage Afro? “No, I cut all my hair off after I saw a black woman in Brixton with cropped hair and thought how stunning she looked. The moment I did it, I knew it was right for me. It was about feeling strong and powerful and beautiful. I joke to people now that I have the biggest Afro in the world, you just don’t see it.”

That complicated path to becoming your own person is also the subject of Kirsten Childs’ autobiographical musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, about a people-pleasing black dancer growing up in sunny, middle-class, white Los Angeles. As the New York Times pointed out: “The show ingeniously turns professional perkiness, the lifeblood of the American musical, into a funny, poignant comment on ethnic self-denial.”

Bushell-Mingo in The Creation from The Mysteries at the Barbican Pit, London, in 1998. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Bushell-Mingo knew she was the right person to direct it. “Kerry [Michael, artistic director of Stratford East] has been chasing me for some years to come back here and direct something, and I’ve never been able to make it. When I read Bubbly Black Girl, I could see straight away it was a good fit. I can relate to that thing of denying your difference. It took me a while to get there. Your identity is influenced by the things around you. There is a point in your childhood when you realise you’re not going to be Cinderella or Barbie.”

She describes the style of the show as “almost cinematic, with not a moment to rest”. There is a cast of 10, with four musicians, and more than 100 costumes, covering four decades.

“It is massively challenging and requires every morsel of knowledge and skill I have ever acquired as a director. I work very fast and I talk constantly in rehearsal. I like total transparency. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll say so. I don’t want the actors to walk away from rehearsal not knowing why they’re doing something. They must feel safe and supported at all times. I crack really bad jokes to relieve the tension. It’s good to have a laugh.

David Threlfall and Bushell-Mingo in Peer Gynt at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 1999. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“I’m very much an ensemble director, very physical, and influenced by my own training with companies like Complicite, and by the great Annie Castledine. I’m also interested in the educational aspect of what we’re doing here, what message we’re putting out on social media, how we are releasing that information and what the audience will take away from it.”

The fact that she is returning to the UK this summer to reprise her Simone show at the Young Vic in London suggests that Bushell-Mingo feels more comfortable working here than in Sweden. Is it feasible to imagine that, at some point in the not too distant future, she will return to the UK for good?

“If there was a move it would be a permanent one and, yes, it would be here,” she says. “My kids and my husband love it here. I’m looking to be free, to use my hybrid background to create platforms for others to tell stories. So yes, I’d love to lead a company or run a building. I was offered a big job once and I couldn’t do it at the time. I don’t do this just for fun. I do it because it can change someone’s life like it changed mine.

“I was overwhelmed by the warmth of feeling towards me on social media when I did Nina in Liverpool last year. So many people wanted to know when I was coming back for good. They were like: ‘We need you here.’ It felt empowering. In a sense it felt like I never left.”

The interview at an end, she returns to the rehearsal room with a spring in her step. As we part she tells me: “I took the actors on to the stage today, and we all just stood there, listening to all those stories, all those ghosts from past Stratford East shows. I reminded them of something Edith Piaf once said, ‘Play up to the gods, and they will hold you.’ ”

CV: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Born: 1964, Lewisham
Training: Barking College in Technology, Romford; Kaboodle Theatre Company
Landmark productions: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Virtuoso and The Thebans, Royal Shakespeare Company (1992), From the Mississippi Delta, Contact Theatre, Manchester (1993), The Women of Troy, National Theatre (1995), The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre, London (1999), Simply Heavenly, director, Young Vic, London (2003), Push Festival, artistic director, Almeida Theatre, London (2004), Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2005)
Awards: Plays and Players player of the year for her RSC season (1992), Manchester Evening News best actress award for From the Mississippi Delta (1993), OBE for services to the theatre (2007), Stockholm Culture Prize for outstanding promotion of stage arts in Swedish sign language (2012)

Agent: Mark Pemberton Associates

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, from February 1-March 11, and at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from April 5-15

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