Almost six decades ago, tensions arose in the district surrounding St Ann’s Well Road in Nottingham between the black and white populations. The resulting riots lasted for weeks.
Alarmed, Norman Manley, then premier of Jamaica and Carl La Corberniere, then deputy prime minister of the West Indies, visited Nottingham to reassure the Windrush generation and their children they were welcome in Britain. It was a violent time and preceded the infamous Notting Hill Riots.
I heard about this little-known period in Nottingham’s history while researching another project in the area. I quickly abandoned the original play to start work on Shebeen.
Shebeen is about a Jamaican immigrant couple, Pearl and George, who run an illegal establishment in their home in St Ann’s. The name shebeen derives from an Irish word for ‘illicit whiskey’ and catered to the recently arrived Windrush generation.
From its origins, the shebeen has spread far and close, to the English-speaking Caribbean and on to southern Africa. In the 1950s and early 1960s both the Caribbean and Irish immigrant communities faced naked hostility across Britain.
In response the Windrush generation created their own spaces, like shebeens, which would later become the more widely known blues parties. These spaces allowed these communities to gather, party and live their lives to the fullest with the ease that comes with belonging to a place, something they rarely felt at the time.
The Windrush generation was asked by the government of the day to come help rebuild post-war Britain, the motherland as it was referred to then by many of these migrants.
I wanted to write a play about a specific people at a specific time and place focus. I started writing Shebeen in 2015, with the Windrush generation living in St Ann’s Nottingham, my neighbours.
This gave me a window into the world of the play. I listened to their stories and researched further. I wanted to put a black female character at the heart of a play and I wanted the action of the story to have urgency and to unfold in real time; the challenge was combining the two.
A challenge was to give the play’s many characters the chance to tell their story in the most respectful, truthful and beautiful way possible.
Shebeen has come more into focus with the recent Windrush scandal unfolding. I have not changed what was already on paper, it’s just been revealed more. That is the tragedy.
It all too easy to forget about this history, but when you do it can neglectful and cruel. That is what we saw from this government until the public outcry.
Many of this generation worked the most laborious jobs available. This generation grew up with Britain as the motherland. Your Queen was their Queen. Your language, theirs. Your rules and laws, theirs. They could not have been more British if they tried and they tried. They are British.
Shebeen runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until July 7.