London born playwright and academic Winsome Pinnock’s parents were both migrants from Jamaica. She was the first Black woman to have a play at the National Theatre with Leave Taking in 1988 directed by Paulette Randall, this was part of a UK tour by the National’s education department. Nearly thirty years on she was joined by Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night in 2018. Described by The Guardian as the “godmother of Black British playwrights” she is also credited as the most well known. (image credit: Winsome Pinnock © Bronwen Sharp)
Winsome theatre credits include: The Principles of Cartography (Bush Theatre); Tituba (Hampstead Theatre); Cleaning Up, Taken (Clean Break at Ovalhouse Theatre); IDP, One Under, Water (Tricycle Theatre); The Stowaway (Plymouth Theatre); Beg Borrow or Steal (Kuumba Community Arts Centre), Mules, Water, A Hero’s Welcome, A Rock in Water (Royal Court Theatre); Can you Keep a Secret? (NT Connections), Leave Taking (Liverpool Playhouse Theatre); The Wind of Change (Half Moon Theatre), Picture Palace (Women’s Theatre Group). Radio plays include: Clean Trade (Radio 4); Awards include the George Devine Award; Pearson Plays on Stage Scheme best play of the year Award; Unity Trust Theatre Award. Pinnock was runner-up for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. She was Senior Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University and writer in residence at Holloway Prison, Clean Break Theatre Company, Royal Court Theatre, Kuumba Arts Community Centre, Tricycle Theatre, and the National Theatre Studio. She won the Alfred Fagon 2018 Award for Best New Play of the Year. Ahead of Passages: A Windrush Celebration we managed to get Pinnock’s attention?
AA: How does it feel to be “described as the most successful black female playwright in Britain” ?
WP: I am thrilled that my work has received such a positive response over the years. It is incredible when the thing you love to do most in the world is also your career.
AA: Being the first Black woman to have a play at the National Theatre with Leave Taking in 1988, do you remember what it felt like at the time?
WP: I didn’t realise that I was the first black British woman to have a play on at the National Theatre until about 15 years after the event. When I realised that this was the case I was of course very proud, but I was also quite moved by the realisation that “the first” often means “the only one” which speaks to a history of the neglect and marginalisation of work by people of colour.
AA: Did you know you were making history?
WP: I was conscious of the contribution I was making and took the responsibility seriously. I am a child of immigrants and that means that you are part of a generation of pioneers.
AA: At what point did you realise that you were a talented writer?
WP: I won my first prize for writing when I was about 8 or 9. One of my teachers told me that I was a good writer and used to pin my stories on the board each week. As an adult I went on to win awards such as the George Devine Award, the Pearson Plays on Stage Award, and the Alfred Fagon Award, but it took quite a while for me to accept that I was a “real” writer simply because I hadn’t met many writers who looked like me. I have certainly grown in confidence over the years and I do now realise that those awards weren’t flukes. These days I don’t take my talent for granted.
AA: Can you give us an insight into your journey into writing, where did you train, what was your first professional published piece?
WP: I’d been writing short pieces (stories, poems, sketches) since I was a child. Despite being chronically shy I became known as a writer and performer at school and when I left was predicted to do well in the theatre. I took a degree in Drama and English Literature at Goldsmiths. At first I’d wanted to perform but decided to focus on my writing when I realised that theatre didn’t offer many good roles for people of colour. I applied to join the Royal Court Young Writers’ group. I remember crying and jumping on my mum’s bed when the then writing tutor wrote to tell me that the sketch I’d sent in indicated that I was talented and invited me to join. My play “Leave Taking” was first produced in 1987. It was revived in 2018 by Madani Younis at The Bush theatre. Can you imagine having your first play revived so many years later? Thank goodness it sold out and was a critical success.
AA: Let’s talk about the event at the Royal Court: Passages: A Windrush Celebration how did you get involved?
WP: My play “Leave Taking” focuses on the Windrush generation. When the play was revived at the Bush Theatre Lynette Linton contacted me and asked if I wanted to take part in an event that she was planning to celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the ship The Windrush into Tilbury Docks in 1948.
AA: Tell us about your contribution the Windrush to the event?
WP: I have written a monologue, which is a meditation on the tension between memory and nostalgia.
AA: The deportation of people who have spent most or all of their lives here, contributed to British culture and paid taxes, how do you articulate that?
WP: Our event is an expression of solidarity. We also hope that it will raise awareness. It is a tribute to the Windrush Generation – a way of thanking them for their courage and tenacity.
AA: How do these kinds of events make changes to this system/hostile environment if at all?
I think it’s important to speak out and to raise awareness. The impact of events like this is exponential: those who attend will be in a position to inform others, and so on. We can’t underestimate the contribution of the arts to social change.
AA: The Windrush scandal has created a wider awareness of the Windrush, why is it an important part of British history?
WP: The Windrush scandal doesn’t only affect migrants from the Caribbean but has impacted so many others. However, I think that it is crucial for people to understand the specific Windrush history so that people can give up their delusions about a Britain that doesn’t exist anymore – if it ever did – and open their eyes to what Britain is today.
AA: How much would you say the theatre industry has changed in the last 30 years in terms of representation and what are the changes you would like to see?
WP: I am aware that individual success does not necessarily represent structural change. So, while I am grateful for my career, I am conscious that theatre has a very long way to go in terms of representation. For example, I discovered recently that one of my favourite London theatres has never produced a play by a black British playwright. They tick the box for representation by producing a handful of African American plays and by curating “festivals” of work by black African artists – usually very short pieces or pieces written for young people, but they have never produced a full-length play by a black British playwright. A recent positive change has been the rise of Artistic Directors of colour like Madani Younis whose vision and passion arises from lived experience. They prove that “diversity” is exciting, dynamic and commercial.
AA: What are some of the highlights of the Windrush Passages event that you are looking forward to on the day?
WP: The whole day promises to be celebratory and informative. I am particularly looking forward to seeing all the short films, the panel discussions and the food!
Passages: A Windrush Celebration is a day of food, music, performance, panel debate and the premiere of Passages: Seven Films for Seven Decades at the Royal Court Theatre on Sat 13 April. All events are free to attend. Booking required for screenings and workshops. Book here: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/passages/
Check out Winsome’s recent episode of the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast.
You can listen to Winsome Pinnock talking to Simon Stephens in the third series of the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast here.