Having studied performing arts at Barking College of Technology, Josette Bushell-Mingo launched her career as an actress care of Kaboodle Theatre Exchange, an avant garde company with which she worked for three years.
She has also spent seasons with People Show, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Young Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National, as well as working internationally in Sweden and Germany, clocking up a diverse range of credits from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Peer Gynt, Women of Troy, Elvis and, in the West End, The Vagina Monologues.
In 1999, Bushell-Mingo originated the role of Rafiki in the West End production of Disney’s The Lion King, for which she was Olivier-nominated.
It was while appearing in The Lion King that Bushell-Mingo became troubled that more of her peers were not enjoying the same chances for success. To counter this, in 2001, she co-founded Push, a multi-disciplinary Black-led arts organisation with the aim of inspiring diversity and promoting more Black artists into mainstream British arts.
This week, the organisation launches Push04, its first-ever three-week festival of Black-led performing arts, which opens with the world premiere of actor-turned-playwright Rhashan Stone’s debut play Two Step, directed by Bushell-Mingo at the Almeida Theatre.
Bushell-Mingo’s other non Push-related directorial credits include The Birds, Mother Courage and Her Children and the Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated Langston Hughes musical Simply Heavenly, which opened last year at the Young Vic and is revived next month at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, starring Rhashan Stone, Clive Rowe and Ruby Turner.
Date & place of birth
Born 16 February 1964 in Lewisham, south London.
Lives now in…
Stockholm, Sweden, because that’s where my husband and my two children are. I’m in London as often as is necessary, usually staying with people who will put up my energy and my naughtiness.
I didn’t formally train as a director or an actress, but I did go to Barking College of Technology in Dagenham Rutherford, which did a two-year performing arts course.
First big break
Kaboodle Theatre Exchange, which is the first job I ever got. Kaboodle were an avant garde performance art company, led by Lee Beasley. They came and did a two-day workshop with all the performing arts students in my last year at Barking College. I went in and I gave it my all. I hadn’t done anything like it in my life. I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s sort of Grotowski meets Complicite meets avant garde meets total linearness. I remember it clearly to this day - I just leapt forth and then, at the end of the workshop, Lee took me to one side and said, “I’ve been watching you and would like to know if you’d like to join my company”. Yeah, I ran away with the circus. I was with them just over three years.
Career highlights to date
Everything is exciting until proven otherwise. Of course, there are some things that get you more recognised - going to the RSC or the National or doing The Lion King, those are the obvious ones. But there are other smaller things that happened to me that have changed the course of how I work as an artist and how I perceive myself. For the first years of my career, I had no agent. I got all my work from The Stage, I got auditions by writing incredibly cheeky letters to people. Many of the best things have been for smaller, more avant garde companies, where money or what colour you or your audience were wasn’t a problem. It was about the work and reaching people and telling stories.
It’s not a naïve calculation on my part – it’s not “oh, I can just do anything I like” - but surely in the collective drive to communicate then how you do that is part of the fun. Call me old-fashioned, love, but those are the things that I understood. Only in places that were more mainstream did people start to pick me out because of my colour. One of the first times I hit that was with Two Gentlemen of Verona at the RSC. I had been playing the maid and then I took over from Saskia Reeves as Sylvia. It was amazing, but of course there was flak – “how can I black woman play that part?” Now, I don’t care if you criticise my work because I’m a crap actress, but not “hmm, she’s black...” Yeah, and? If theatre is a museum, then, yes, that black person wouldn’t be there at all at that time, but then we also shouldn’t be doing Chekhov, we shouldn’t be doing Ibsen because, you know what, we’re not Russian and we’re not Swedish. So hello?
All of them. The Lion King folk, my Vagina Monologues co-stars Honor Blackman and Sarah Alexander, what an honour to be sitting with those two. Before that, working with Kathryn Hunter on the The Birds at the National. Oh god, watching those actors fly over your head! I enjoy working with everyone until I’m proved wrong.
Shakespeare’s there, but just at the bottom. Debbie Tucker Green, I really am excited by her work. Ibsen I really like. Quite a few American playwrights, obviously August Wilson. Here, Roy Williams – I mean hello? And Winsome Pinnuck, where are you? I know where she is, of course, but you know. Yeah, those are the people that influence me.
Which other directors do you most admire?
Annie Castledine, Pina Bausch, Alvina Hayley of Harlem Dance. I admire Howard Davies, I admire Tadeusz Kantor’s work from Poland. I’ve not worked with them all - Kantor’s dead, of course - but these are the people I’ve been influenced by. Another director’s just come to my head – Ramin Gray, he’s a slightly unsung, he’s worked at the Royal Court. Also Indhu Rubasingham, who’s a contemporary of mine. I admire them for all sorts of reasons, you know, but mainly for what they try to do for directing and art as much as anything else.
What made you want to direct?
I didn’t want to! But I do love it, I love creating the conditions for actors to produce the best work they can. A lot of the time, it’s about being honest, to pay compliment where compliment is due on the rehearsal floor, to admit when I don’t know something, to ask for help sometimes from my stage management and my assistant directors. When I direct, it’s useful understanding what an actor is going through. I think you do approach it differently. I smell the fear but I smell it in a different way and I learn to use it. And I know when actors are just fucking around and being totally unacceptable on the floor and I kill that when it starts. Leave that baggage at the door. I’m really not here to joke, I take this very very seriously. The only thing that will translate is what happens on the stage at 7.30pm on the first of September and that’s very scary. I think people don’t quite expect that kind of ferociousness from me, but it all goes back to my contract - with myself, with the actors and, at the end of the day, with the audience.
What roles would you most like to play still?
The last part I’d like to play before I pop my clogs is Clytemnestra, and I’ve always wanted to play Joan of Arc. It’s quite interesting as an actress to see how other people see you. For example, the next part I’m going to play is Cleopatra in Manchester – yeah, she’s cool. And, having played Elvis Presley, I’d like to explore some other male parts, Richard II maybe, although Kathryn Hunter’s already done that.
Which plays would you most like to direct?
Plays I’d like to direct are endless. The Greeks are an absolute passion of mine, I’d love to do some of the Greek trilogies. I’m a dark and a bleak director. Although I like comedy, I like it to come out of darkness. Steven Berkoff is a classic example, I love his work. At the moment, I’m toying around with the epic - I think we need it because, post September 11th, we are living in epic times and everything is overshadowed by that.
What would you advise would the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Talk to PUSH!
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Martin Luther King because I want to feel the courage.
Toni Morrison, my favourite of hers is Beloved. Other favourite books are Songs of Enchantment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Perfume, Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman’s The Forest of Hours. These are books that have begun to tap in to the otherness of our existence, the idea that the dead, the ancestors, the spirit world are close by. I take great comfort in that. I’d like to meet Toni Morrison, I’d like to sit down with for half an hour and say, “how do you do that?”
Favourite holiday destinations
Barbados. I’’m hoping to go this Christmas. And if anyone out there wants to give me a free ticket ….
Why did you found Push in 2001?
Mischief and dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction was compounded when I was doing an interview for The Lion King. The journalist asked me, “Do you think that The Lion King is the answer to Black theatre in Britain?” I thought, this is actually being slightly misunderstood here. The more praise I got and the more excitement I felt, the more I wanted others to share that. While I was up there on the Lyceum stage, I was looking around and thinking, “where’s everyone else?” Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that the others aren’t there, but what was happening just seemed to be so small. So I started to have a series of conversations with my peers inside the industry and outside - architects, dentists, lawyers, doctors. And when we set up Push, it was with one aim: to create events that would change the way the black community in England could see themselves and therefore inspire choice and pride. Pride, because even if you never get involved, you can read in the paper and see the gamut of work on offer and be proud. Inspiration, because if you’re inspired by seeing it then surely you can do it, too. That’s why it was set up. This year what we’ve added is the mainstream institutions, galvanising them to commit to the same things. Plug and socket.
Why is diversity in the arts important?
If I don’t answer that, it’s because I assume everyone knows why it’s important, and I don’t think that I can make that assumption. Why is diversity important? Because without it, it makes the rest look like bullshit, that’s why. As an artist, I’m striving to reflect on stage what I’m seeing in the auditorium, in the street, which is what the public must want too. If you’re talking about the public, you’re talking about the diversity of the white, the black, the disabled, women as well as men, everyone. If we are talking about all of that and we look at our stages – well, it’s not working, end of story. There’s still so much to do, as Push, we’re under strain all the time in this constant transformation of the arts and the artists and the audiences. And with our partners, who cannot be underestimated. It is exhilarating, yes, but it’s also exhausting, incredibly frightening and sometimes downright depressing.
What do you hope to accomplish with the Push04 event?
My gauntlet that I’m throwing down to both the black and white institutions and communities at this point is use Push as a catalyst. Come and enjoy the work, come and be excited by it, because at the end of the day this is fun. Some people are falling into this “Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?” assumption. Well, no you haven’t seen it, not quite like this, not at this level. Somewhere along the line here history is being made. But we must continue not to be complacent, we must continue to be alert. It’s important for people to know that. This has been too fucking long in coming and that’s unacceptable. So let’s find the mischief and the fun, let’s get rid of the complacency, let’s take away the word ‘risk’, let’s put back in ‘access’ and let’s change the way things are done. It can be changed.
You have spoken of your contract with the audience. What do you mean by that?
Theatre is not real. If you want real, you go to Iraq, you know what I’m saying? What happens on stage isn’t real, it’s slightly heightened, and the grief and joy that are expressed are conscious decisions. The skill, of course, is not to show the join. My contract with the audience is that we both know that. I believe in theatrical experiences when we come into the building and we say “now we’re going to be transported” but that doesn’t often happen. I suppose the thing again is not to be complacent about the audience’s relationship to the work.
What can we look forward to with Two Step?
A great piece of theatre! This is a play that deals with my favourite subject, forgiveness, and also with memory and longing. It follows the tragic, and comic, relationship between Lenny, an ex-alcoholic, and Mona. After 32 years, as part of his Alcoholics Anonymous programme, Lenny comes back and asks for Mona’s forgiveness for some past incidents. She looks him in the eye and says, “I’m not ready to forgive you”. That’s where the play starts. When I asked Rhashan Stone to write Two Step, I wanted a play that looked at our older generation - and by old I mean over the age of 45 – that dealt implicitly with the blackness of them, but that wasn’t just about nostalgia in terms of “Do you remember when we first arrived?” I wanted a play that took us out there in terms of emotional landscape and that explored a part of the older generation that’s often unexplored, which is sexuality, which is desire. I feel confident that the audience will be able to watch this play and enjoy the great acting, the theatricality of it, the dialogue, the subject matter. The most important thing for me in terms of the audience is that they leave the auditorium moved and a little more curious as to the psychology of older black folks, and that they are reacquainted with two of our greatest actors in Derek Griffiths and Dona Croll.
Why did you want to revive your earlier Young Vic production of Simply Heavenly?
I was asked to! And I was so so very happy and so so excited to do so. What I had in Simply Heavenly at the Young Vic was the best, the best in terms of the calibre of black musical actors in this country. And it was a huge public success. People were queuing for tickets and many were turned away, even friends and family who wanted to see it. So I’m glad they’ll have another opportunity. I hope that people will come and see it again and be delighted by it again and moved by it again. I’m not intending to make any radical changes to the production, it won’t be the baby with the bath water, but of course there is now a second bite at the cherry and I’m looking at the cherry very very carefully this time. This is the West End, make no mistake.
What are your other plans for the future?
After Simply Heavenly, I have Antony and Cleopatra, which will be at Manchester Royal Exchange with the gorgeous Tom Mannion playing my Antony. It will be nice to return to the thing I love most – acting – which is how this all started. I am still blown away by the costumes and the sets, by the magic of theatre. I think somehow that must be conveyed to the audience and really given back to the people who work in it. As I say time and time again, it’s not the what, it’s the how. How do you speak to someone? How do you share an idea? How do you make everyone part of the dream? How do you relax those people who are over there and say “it’s alright, I’m not going to bite you or hurt you”? How do you inspire change? I have been inspired by so many people, and I think inspiration is something we are losing. If I don’t inspire others, it’s okay but at least I had a fucking good run at it.
Two Step runs from 1 to 11 September 2004 (previews from 30 August) at the Almeida Theatre. followed in the Push schedule by the new opera Another America: Fire and the new ballet Awakening, running in a double bill at Sadler’s Wells from 16 to 18 September 2004.
Push 04 is produced in collaboration with the Almeida, ROH2 at the Royal Opera House and English National Opera and is supported by Bloomberg and JP Morgan, Arts Council England, Decibel, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Jerwood Foundation and NESTA.
Simply Heavenly reopens at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios on 25 October 2004 (previews 15 October).