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Cathy Tyson

Giving voice to a section of the community that’s routinely overlooked Michelle Inniss’ play She Called Me Mother played a two-night run at Lighthouse, Poole’s centre for the arts, on 15 and 16 October 2015.

Respected actress Cathy Tyson brings all her 30 years’ acting experience – and more besides – to bear in the play’s central role, Evangeline, a 70-year-old homeless woman who watches mainstream life pass before her eyes from her spot at London Bridge station as she contemplates her own life and the twists and turns that have brought her there.

Written in the poetic Trinidadian dialect that’s rarely heard on our stages, She Called Me Mother is being toured by Black Theatre Live, a consortium of eight regional theatres, including Lighthouse, with a three-year programme to bring high quality performances from culturally diverse perspectives to venues across the country. It’s the first show to be produced by Pitch Lake Productions founded by Cathy and Michelle, whose friendship goes back to school days, with director Cara Nolan, to address the lack of leading roles in the theatre for older black, Asian and minority ethnic actors.

“If the work isn’t coming on you have to go and make it for yourself,” says Cathy. ‘I’ve never done anything like this before. This play has been in my house for ages, but I didn’t read it until late last year – it’s funny how things happen like that. I was at uni at the time so I was busy with that, but then it surfaced and I read it and that was that, we had to put it on. Up until that point I kept hearing how difficult is it to get things done and hearing that stopped me from attempting it, but here we are now and the important thing is we’ve done it together.”

Cathy was 17 when she began her career at the Liverpool Everyman. She joined the RSC in 1984 and made her mark on the wider public two years later starring opposite Bob Hoskins in Neil Jordan’s film Mona Lisa. Other film and television roles followed including Band of Gold, Grange Hill and Emmerdale before she enrolled on an access to higher education course in 2009 followed by a degree in English and Drama at Brunel University.

“It’s about taking risks – and I’m a risk taker – and being brave enough to put your work up there and stand by it. I think after going to uni I got cheeky again, I got my cheek back. What have I got to lose? I can get up there and do that and it might be turn out to be great, but if I don’t do it I’ll never know.

“I have this experience and that informs your views so my mission is to talk about things that aren’t necessarily spoken about publicly. I want to talk about homelessness, but to do so the story has to be there first and it’s there in Michelle’s writing, the language she uses, the Trinidadian dialect.”

The story reveals itself as Evangeline, who is based on a woman Michelle used to see and speak to on the streets, talks about where she comes from, what has happened to her and the profound longing she feels to see her daughter again.

“Evangeline doesn’t envy the people she sees,” Cathy explains. “She sits in that spot and she watches this sea of commuters washing to and fro in front of her. I love that right at the beginning of the play she says this: ‘When she gon come? I lookin at de people dem but I can’t see her. She a pretty lookin ting, she does stan’ out amongst these faces dripped in dissatisfaction.’ She sees their faces dripped in dissatisfaction; she can see that from her position. She has nothing, but she doesn’t want their lives; she doesn’t want to be like them.

“It’s a fantastic piece of writing that asks us question about our own lives – how much stuff do we need? Me included. We are always being told we need to have more things to be happy. It’s an affliction because we’re never satisfied, it’s like we can’t be happy with what we’ve got, we’re so spoiled. It’s very difficult to combat that, it’s a mental state.”

Evangeline’s life is brightened by a woman she calls the Black Swan who shows her a little common or garden kindness that makes a real difference to her life.

“This woman has looked upon Evangeline with something other than pity or disgust or disdain. She has shown her love, she touched her hand, gave her a smile, something as simple as that has had this impact on her life. Think about how powerful that is, a simple look or a smile can mean so much more than all the iPads and PS3s in the world. Evangeline has no need for those things.

“So she sees this woman, the Black Swan, who stands out from the crowd because she is not like the others and Evangeline decides she wants to share a secret with her, something that happened long ago. Evangeline has considered suicide but she can’t do it because she has this faith and it is against the spiritual law. We know she has suffered domestic violence but she has never been rehabilitated from that, she has always left that to the Lord. Now she has engaged with this woman and it has rekindled her life.”

The story of this 70-year-old homeless Afro-Caribbean woman resonates far beyond the confines of the play, according to Cathy.

“Sometimes we don’t see what is around us. I saw an elderly woman on the streets the other day and I was thinking that people don’t want to see that because it confronts what they think about themselves ageing – if they thought that was where they were heading, it’s really scary. Living on the streets is not good for a young person’s health, so imagine what it must be like as you get older.

“Evangeline has wondered whether or not all this has happened to her because of something she did when she was younger and I think that’s something many people can identify with. I know there was a stage in my life, my first big disappointment, when I was thinking why has this happened to me? Up until that point I had enjoyed success and I thought it would all continue in the same gradual climb upwards.

“Then you find life isn’t like that, it’s unpredictable... and you have to accept that.”

Interview by Nick Churchill