Yvonne Brewster has a great fund of stories to tell. She was born in Kingston Jamaica, to a wealthy and extremely mixed family (of her four grandparents, one was of Cuban origin, one Polish, one Indian and one Scottish), and came to the UK to study. Her father thought he was sending her to finishing school, but the Rose Bruford College is actually a drama school. In 1956, there were few black people in Britain, and the school was not sure how to handle this new student: the principal was probably trying to be kind in warning the young Yvonne that although she would be allowed to stay, she would never find work in the theatre. At first, this warning seemed justified: "I could only play maids - and a troll. I did get to play a troll in Peer Gynt."
Perhaps it was this that drove her to found not one but two theatre companies: The Barn, Jamaica's first professional theatre company which is still thriving today, 35 years later, and Talawa, which she established in 1985 together with Mona Hammond, Inigo Espegel and Carmen Munroe, was Britain's leading black theatre company for over twenty years. Yvonne was Production Manager on the legendary film The Harder They Come, and in the 1993 New Years Honours list, Yvonne received an OBE for Services to the Arts.
So naturally, over the years, people have suggested she should write her autobiography. For a long time, she refused. As a "theatre person", she knew the importance of the writer: "Without a writer, the theatre is nothing (unless you're Mike Leigh)." she explained. "I've worked with these great people - especially Shakespeare." In this company, she did not see herself as a writer.
It was a telephone conversation with her mother which finally enabled her to start writing The Undertaker's Daughter. The book is an unusual autobiography, for it is told as if by Yvonne Brewster's mother, the eponymous undertaker's daughter. This device gives the author two gifts: it allows her explain herself by exploring the extraordinary family to which she belongs, but it also allows her to treat what she is writing as a piece of theatre, a dramatic monologue. The passages which she read from the book were not so much deliveries of text as small performances, and no-one who saw them will be able to read the book without remembering her lively interpretation.
Yvonne's first theatrical production, as described in her book, was a funeral for Doll (her sister's doll, whom she and her brother had ambushed and garrotted!) In the words she attributes to her mother:
Nine days after Doll's burial, a Nine Night ceremony was held in good Jamaican tradition, which holds to the belief that the Spirit passes over to the other side nine days after the burial. A choir consisting of all the long-suffering children of the neighbourhood were drilled during the nine-day interval to sing the Sankey hymn A Little More Oil in My Lamp Keep it Burning in real revival style, employing the high-pitched nasal tones of the country parts. Parents were beginning to get a little worried at the length and intensity of the long rehearsals. However, the Nine Night ceremony went off without a hitch; the singing was perfect and the fry fish, bammy, lemonade and now the music attracted quite an appreciative crowd. I always said that was Madam's first production.
Working to get the best out of other people came naturally to her, and informed her work in the theatre, as Paul Jacuson James, who has worked with Talawa, witnessed. Writing about herself was more difficult, but her mother encouraged her to continue, telling her to "phone every day", supplying information and old letters home, answering questions (sometimes with a frankness that took Yvonne aback): for all of these reasons, the resultant book had to be in her voice.
Yvonne Brewster was in conversation with Sheree Mack who admitted that she had been a fan since her student days, when she studied a collection of plays by Black and Asian women edited by Yvonne. Sheree is the Poet-in-Residence at the 2005 Literature Festival. Visit her at Fowler's Yard, every lunchtime from Thursday 13th - Sunday 16th October.
The Undertaker's Daughter is published by Black Amber.