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Brief Encounter With ... Josette Bushell-Mingo

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After a successful run at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, The Wiz opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 24 June. The show is an original take on the classic Wizard of Oz, and stars Treyc Cohen, Clive Rowe and Wayne Robinson. Its director, Josette Bushell-Mingo, took time out from rehearsals to discuss the magic of Leeds and transporting Dorothy from North America to the north of England…

After achieving huge success on stage and screen in a number of incarnations, L. Frank Baum’s classic tale has once again been reborn, but this time with a decidedly English twist. In the latest production of The Wiz, the home that Dorothy yearns for is not Kansas or, as in the original Broadway production, Harlem, but the north of England. As director Josette Bushell-Mingo says: “What I was interested to try to do was make Dorothy ours, so when she goes home she goes home to us”. While quite a bold move, Josette believes it adds a “different resonance” to the story. She says: “I think what it does is root it very much here today. It’s a bit Harry Potter style; it makes you start to see magic and possibilities where you live. That was a huge thing for me. I’m British born myself and sometimes I need to be proud of my own culture.”

But relocating Dorothy ‘up north’ is not the only device Josette has employed to ensure that her version of The Wiz becomes “ours”. Alongside the professional cast, volunteer performers from Leeds will take to the stage to provide a chorus that the director describes as “extraordinary” and “electric”. She says: “I don’t know what it is about this particular group. We auditioned around 100 people altogether, and we took some of the best young artists we could find. I hope it’s a good reflection of Leeds.”

Josette admits there are challenges working with more inexperienced performers, but, for her, these challenges are all positive. She says: “People sometimes find it a bit chaotic, but, for me, it just makes the piece something else. What I love is that it allows you to really look at what you take for granted. Of course, there’s the joy and speed of working with those who are in the profession. But here, you have people come in and go, ‘but why do you do that?’ and ‘what is that?’. Those are questions we don’t ask enough sometimes.” For Josette, using young performers also fundamentally ties the production into the community. “Their mothers and fathers are taxpayers; it’s their theatre and their children are in it. I can’t think of a better combination.”

But given the fact the story is so well known, why choose to retell it? As well as the chance to work with some “wonderful peers”, Josette believes the “universality” of the story reaches everyone. “Heart, brain and courage. We all need that.” She adds: “I was attracted by the story; attracted by definitely the music, oh Lord have mercy. Then digging deeper into it, I took some advice from a professor at New York University and he gave me some insight into the history of it and mistakes that are often made with it.” She adds “The Wiz was written with a consciousness about it; it was written to really invigorate and inspire and lift up a community of people that had been oppressed for so long. At the point when it was written, the African-American community needed it, and we need the same thing in a different way these days.”

Indeed, when it was first produced on Broadway in 1975, The Wiz was considered a landmark show due to the fact that it featured an all-black cast. But have attitudes changed over the years? Josette says: “In terms of diversity there have been extraordinary changes in my lifetime. Yet there are still things that make my mouth drop open. But what I do know is that we are in a country where those can be dealt with. In other countries that would not be the case. So, yes, I think it’s moved on; yes, I think more can be done; yes, I think the arts are in a prime position to do that work and continue doing it.”

Through her current role as artistic director of The Silent Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, where she is based, Josette has had the chance to see how differently that country has tackled the issue. She says: “It’s a complete reverse. Not just because it’s a majority white community; there is a very strong and large African, Afro-Caribbean community there, but their policies are not in place when it comes to diversity. There’s no equal opportunities policy, which, whether people like it or not here, gives us a benchmark. It gives us something to fight against and to use to stand up against. We have developed this and I’m very proud of it. In Sweden, it’s revelatory what’s not in place and what’s allowed to be said and done, particularly within the arts. I tend to use a lot of my experience in the UK to say what’s possible.” She continues: “At the end of the day I’m interested in telling exciting, universal stories. And the idea of diversity is in the DNA of it. For me, it’s fun and interesting and dynamic.”

As well as her work in Sweden, Josette is the artistic director of Push, an organisation set up for the promotion and development of Black British Theatre, and has an impressive list of credits both as a director and actor, including a 1999 Olivier Award nomination for her performance as Rafiki in The Lion King. She was also awarded an OBE in 2006. Of her varied CV, Josette says: “Everything I do comes from a central fire of communicating ideas and giving an audience a thrilling time. As an actress I was able to do it; as a director I’m able to do it; as a teacher I’m able to do it, which is asking some fundamental questions about who we are as human beings. What makes us different, and what makes us the same?”

For her latest production, Josette seems to have struck a chord with audiences of all ages. She says: “We were packed in Birmingham, and I would never have believed it. I mean, packed from the rafters. There’s something about it that’s catching people.” And she’s positive about how the show will fit into its new home at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. “It’s got a very epic, but very intimate feel about it. I’ve got a great crew and cast, particularly the creative team, so there’ll be a lot of eyes on it; a lot of experience.”

So what can Playhouse audiences expect from The Wiz? Josette says: “Audiences can expect an explosion. A firecracker of a production, packed with wonderful performances, and I think they will be so proud of their Leeds.” She adds: “For me, what’s exciting is there will definitely be a Leeds character about it. It’s a new cultural retelling of a story with everything; we’ve got Dorothy and the Lion and the Tinman and the Scarecrow. They’re all there, but with a completely different slant. Most of all I think that audiences will be touched by the story of Dorothy and that home is here in Leeds.”

The Wiz will be at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from 24 June to 16 July 2011. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 213 7700 or visit www.wyp.org.uk.

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