Interview: Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE

Award-winning British Actress/ Director Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE was born in South-East London, Alt Africa caught up with her at the Coventry opening of Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, in April, which she directed. Her stage credits include Solveig, Peer Gynt and Antony and Cleopatra. Her talent has not gone unnoticed and in 1999 she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical playing Rafiki in The Lion King. Over her nearly 40-year career she has played many roles for the RSC. For the most part her earlier career was predominately physical theatre before she started directing. She is the founder of PUSH a black-led arts festival.

Residing now in Sweden she is one of three artistic directors at The Swedish National Touring Theatre and on the board of the Swedish Film Institute. Her production of The Odyssey performed in Swedish sign language received wide critical acclaim in Scandinavia.

In 2017, her production- Nina-A Story About Me and Nina Simone comes to the Young VIC, London, previously at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool. Dates at the Young VIC are varied running from 19 July – 29th July 2017. Josette described the production as a “deeply personal and often searing show inspired by the singer and activist Nina Simone.” The production is now sold out but there is a possibility to grab returns for more information check the website. https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/nina

  1. What attracted you to directing Bubbly?

The slight kooky way the writer Kirsten Childs deals issues that I think have not gone away. How it identifies with the black African gaze, the way she combines music, comedy and very dark humour to really show where we as a people of African descent. The play deals with what things have influenced us over time everything from the famous doll test that happened in the 1960s where black and white children were asked to choose dolls, whether they preferred a white or a black doll and they always went for the white doll. From that perspective, I was attracted because I think her story has become relevant again. And there was also the chance to work at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

  1. If the play was making a statement what would that statement be?

I think the play is there to say nothing is over, what happens to us as children stays with us as adults. The journey for us as Africans is everyone’s journey and the job and the position of our white society is to accept their position in our African history both as colonialist and as inheritors of a racist infrastructure. The play also talks about pride and triumph, reminding us at what cost, children lie at the heart of that. The stuff that black women particularly in the 50s and 60s went through to get to where they are, she also touches on all the social norms from hair to skin colour and civil rights. There is so much to take away.

  1. As an award-winning actress what prompted the move to directing?

Well there here has been no transition. I am still doing the same thing I am just not doing it in the way people expect and I quite like that. For me creativity comes from the same fire, we want to easily pigeon hole people. Directing for me is a natural extension, if I was not good at it then I would have stopped and gone back to acting. But I do not need to go back to acting, I have never stopped. I will have my own show Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone. It is a sold out run at the Young Vic and then it goes to Travers in Scotland, touring the UK in 2018. It is by luck that people ask me to direct and often I am asked to do difficult shows. Bubbly was not an easy musical to deal with. With most of the productions I direct people ask who can they get to do this. Then they think of me, someone who is mad is enough, brave enough and creative enough to deal with the production. In addition to all this I just have been made visiting Professor at Coventry University which means I will be able to increase my knowledge and share my knowledge, yes, it is from the same fire.

  1. What did it mean to be given an OBE?

When I first got, it I joked and said it stands for Oh Bloody ‘ell. But receiving the OBE from the Queen herself is a great recognition from your peers as OBEs are voted for by the masses. It is the people who have seen your work over many years that nominate you. I accepted it without hesitation as it is a recognition from the people for the work I have done.

  1. Was moving to Sweden a career decision?

Love. I fell in love with a Swede, a person not a vegetable (laughs). I have two sons who are Afro-Swedes and I moved there partly because I had been offered work. I was doing the Lion King and then visited the National Touring Theatre of Sweden, a director saw me. They told her who I was and to cut a long story short I was offered work. But the thing that drew me there was my family, my partner. Love is always a good start.

  1. What is the theatre scene like in Sweden is it as vibrant as London?

It is different, I think I am here at one of the most important times as Sweden is recognising its own colonial past. Theatre here is more and more dealing with issues like race and the past but not just heavy stuff through comedy. The renaissance of Afro-Swedes is fantastic and to watch colleagues from PUSH (Swedish version), Black Coffee, and groups that are forming here. I think it will become vibrant right now it is complicated.

  1. Why did you set up PUSH?

I set up PUSH for affirmation, so that we of African heritage do what we need to do artistically. It was to reflect on the diversity within ourselves. Cross fertilising opera to storytelling, to really bringing the richness of who we are to ourselves and a reminder for the greater society of how much we are make an impact and influence the cultural scene.

  1. Bubbly deals with femininity, how much have women’s roles changed in the last 20 years?

It depends really. Yesterday I was watching an interview with Fay Weldon, she wrote the book She- Devil and she was asked the question on feminism, a similar question to yours. First, looking at it in its white middle class version that does not work. On an intersectional perspective, it is much more interesting where different politics meet. But how far women have come it is an on-going and constant work which we are winning and will win. Fay’s response was she does not believe the revolution has come yet. Not when women across the world continue to battle, it is not over for us. I was also thinking of my work with the deaf community, the very core of it is what do you think of this deaf person not their human rights, but if it was written on paper, deep down what do you think of this person. There is still work to be done.

  1. What is next for you?

I am going to go back to Sweden and will direct a production in Swedish sign language for The Silent Theatre, in Stockholm. I am one of three Artistic Directors at the National Touring Theatre of Sweden (Riksteatern). Then back to the Young Vic for Nina and then I will be taking Nina to Scotland. Next year Nina will be in Sweden. I have my work at the university here in Coventry, then I am directing cabaret. I am Associate Artist at the Lakeside Theatre and I am talking to them about doing things like The Wiz, the African American version of the Wizard of Oz. So, the next 2 years are full of great joy.

  1. What advice would you give to the next generation of theatre directors?

The first question is to ask yourself why and then ask to do you want to be an artist or a director. As an artist, you have a wider choice, as a director it is more sporadic. Once you know that, offer your services to your nearest theatre, be an Associate Director and observe. Do that with several theatres and take loads of notes. Well, I am contactable I am happy to do what I can for the next generation of artists and give something back.

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