A 20-year friendship between celebrated actress Cathy Tyson and creative writing student Michelle Inniss has blossomed into a new theatrical project after the pair’s paths crossed once again at Brunel University London.
Michelle, who is completing her two-year, part-time Master’s degree in Creative Writing the Novel at Brunel, has secured funding from Black Theatre Live for a UK tour of her play ‘She Called Me Mother’, about an elderly homeless Trinidadian woman who sells the Big Issue.
The role is played by Cathy and based on a real Caribbean woman who Michelle used to see and talk to at London Bridge station when she took the train to visit her own mother in South East London.
Cathy, who is well-known for her starring roles in the film Mona Lisa (1986) with Bob Hoskins, for which she won two US film critics’ awards and was nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe, and the ITV series Band of Gold (1995-1997), graduated from Brunel in 2013 with a degree in English and Drama.
Cathy and Michelle’s friendship dates back to the 1970s when they were both school students at the Catholic girls’ school, St Winifred’s, in Dingle, Liverpool, where they both grew up.
“We’d kept in touch for over 20 years,” explained Michelle. “So I sent Cathy my play and she read it and liked it.” The drama was originally written as a poetic monologue in vernacular Trinidadian, highly challenging for a performer but a voice familiar to Michelle, whose parents are from Trinidad.
“I have that voice situated very well within. I’ve lived in Liverpool, and then London. I’ve been exposed to so many different cultures,” she added.
When Michelle used to see the homeless woman —in the play she is called Evangeline Josephina Gardner — “she was always talking”.
The conversations with the homeless woman took place over a year, sometimes a couple of times a week .The last time Michelle saw her it was when her own mother died and she was on her way to the chapel of rest.
On this occasion, unexpectedly, the homeless woman put some money into Michelle’s hand which she tried to refuse.
“She actually insisted. But I said ‘No, no.’ She became offended that I wouldn’t take anything from her. So I did. I accepted £3 and I bought a single white rose.”
Michelle took the bloom to the chapel to place in her mother’s coffin. “It had a tiny drop of water on it. I put it inside my coat and when I took it out the drop was still there,” she recalled. “I thought of that elderly homeless woman selling the Big Issue at London Bridge station and I found myself asking once again ‘Where are her loved ones, her family?’ Writing this play has answered some of those questions for me.”
Michelle only began writing creatively in 2005. But a year later in 2006 she was runner up for the Decibel Penguin Prize, then open to black writers only. She was later shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize in 2010, and longlisted for a production with the Angle new playwrights’ scheme at the Bush Theatre, West London, in 2011. One of her short stories ‘Whatever Lola wants’ will be published by Peepal Tree in an anthology entitled ‘Closure’, this spring.
Michelle wrote ‘She Called Me Mother’ before coming to Brunel, enrolling on her creative writing course in 2013, on the recommendations of her old friend, Cathy, who graduated in the summer of the same year. Michelle had also studied before with Dr Bernardine Evaristo, a reader in Creative Writing at Brunel. Although Michelle chose to study novel writing, she has no preference for either medium —drama or literature —in which to tell her narrative.
“I write in whatever way comes to me, however I think the story needs to be told. I hear what my characters are saying and I see words visually,” she revealed.
Cathy says she was “drawn” to the play instantly when she received it in 2013. “When Michelle sent the script to me I fell in love with the language immediately. My father was from Trinidad so I was already familiar with the speech.
“You don’t often see elderly black women on the stage, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity to bring an overshadowed character to life.”
Cathy began her acting career at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre when she was 17, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company two years’ later. After a highly successful film and TV career she felt she wasn’t getting the challenging parts that she wanted.
“Acting is my drive. If there isn’t the work, then I would move into something else. I have to be stimulated and engaged,” she said.
Beginning Higher Education in middle age
Cathy enrolled on an access to higher education course in Creative Studies at the adult education institute, the City Lit in London, in 2009, before embarking on her undergraduate degree at Brunel in 2010.
“I felt jaded with my career and needed something to re- ignite my passion. And the beginning of that journey was the access course at City Lit.
“As an actress I always like to research parts and plays, so the thought of study on an academic level appealed to me. There was also a need to prove to myself and others that I was intelligent,” said Cathy. “Because I had left school without any qualifications I had carried around a shame about this.
“I also wanted to improve my career prospects. I had thought of becoming a teacher, if my acting career failed to keep me busy. I revere good teachers and it is an honour to be in a position to educate others. Mother said to me that to educate means to ‘draw out.’ So, as a teacher you are not giving something that isn’t there but drawing out what is already there is a student. So my attitude was and still is one of respect towards the teaching profession.”
One of the reasons Cathy chose Brunel, she explains, is that she wanted to be in a multi-cultural, diverse environment. This was also one of the reasons that she moved to London from Liverpool.
“I’ve lived in London more than I’ve lived in Liverpool,” Cathy said. “I brought my son up in London. It’s more diverse than Liverpool. There’s a reason why I stayed here [London], rather than go there [Liverpool]: because of the diversity, although the people are very warm up there.
The school that I went to was not very ethnically mixed. It was a hard decision, when I was younger, not to stay there.”
“There’s a lot of different cultures at Brunel. That’s one thing I saw from the photographs [in the prospectus]. I didn’t know how many people mixed in that way. I just knew that there were a lot of different colours,” she said.
“I didn’t do a lot of clubs. I was just struggling to get on with a lot of readings and essays.” She added. “My experience [of multiculturalism] was drama. My course had so many black students on it.
“I was just aware of that. It was great because a lot of people had not been around black people. They came from another part of the country. It was their first experience of being in a classroom of black people. I’ve got very fond memories of being at Brunel.”
Being a mature student among colleagues more than half her age with a highly successful career as her background, brought its own challenges. “A lot of them were too young to know about my work. I don’t think they were in awe of me but there was a quiet respect.
“When you are in a lecture room the atmosphere is one of debate and there were some who didn’t agree with the things I said. Don’t forget, I was in a minority being a mature student, so I felt they were in a more confident position, being near the same age group as each other.”
Cathy discovered that being older meant she was motivated to work in a more intense way than many of her younger colleagues. “There were a few students who envied my enthusiasm for study,” she said. “They made comments saying they wished they had the same keenness.
“I think the biggest shock for me was the English students’ knowledge of writers, and the drama students’ knowledge of visionaries and practitioners. They knew about people who I had never heard of and they had formed opinions about them.”
When Cathy read Michelle’s script she was so enthusiastic about it that she sent the manuscript to director Cara Nolan, with whom Tyson had worked on the drama Bright Phoenix by Jeff Young at the Liverpool Everyman .
Cara agreed to direct it and the three women formed their own theatre company, Pitch Lake Productions, in January 2015. ‘She Called Me Mother’ will be their first production.
Cara said: “As I read this play my head was like a Rolodex of images, filling up with image after image. It was so beautiful that by the end I thought ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to find a way of doing it.’”
The play is now in development. Originally a one-woman show, Michelle is now writing a second part for Evangeline’s daughter. The role has not yet been cast. ‘She Called Me Mother’ will premiere in Stratford Circus, East London in October before going on tour.