Jenny Jules, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 12:30 | Interview by Gillian Fisher
Jenny Jules, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl Jenny Jules, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Actress Jenny Jules has achieved amazing things throughout her career. Not only has she consistently wowed audiences with her skilled performances of roles ranging from Russian teenagers to Caribbean sorceresses, last year she received the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress. Currently rehearsing her role of Mavis in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, I’m eager to know how she feels about having come so far as an artist, and as her deep gratitude, vision and incredible warmth shine through during the interview, it becomes very obvious why this woman has such skill in her craft.

How would you describe the play, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl?

It’s set in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War in a tenement yard in Port of Spain. It’s boom time for Trinidad where there are a few American bases and there’s lots of American influence. But the people of this yard are not benefitting from the boom time. They’re not really the subclass but they’re struggling to get out the squalor and they have hopes and aspirations and dreams and some of their hopes and dreams clash with some of the other people in the yard. It’s about the human condition; trying to escape poverty, having dreams that you want to realise for yourself. It’s about making choices in your life and all related elements like the powers of the universe that conspire to knock you back or change your luck.

What is your character Mavis like?

She’s a woman of the night. She’s funny, when I read the play I couldn’t stop laughing, I thought ‘Great, I’m gonna be the jokes in this play!’ She has a boyfriend called Prince, he’s kind of like her slave and it’s because he’s in love with her. She’s fiercely independent; yes she’s a working girl, but we don’t know her story. We don’t know why she does what she does, but we know what she gets out of it; she gets her independence, she gets her fantastic clothes out of it and she has the freedom to do what she wants. But she actually claims respectability, what she hopes for is to be a respectable person and to be respected by people in the yard and she doesn’t feel that she is. She has huge battles with Sophia Adams who is played by Martina Laird who is kind of the moral compass in the tenement yard. She wants Mavis out as she doesn’t think she’s a decent person.

What’s really fascinating is that the four the female characters that you meet in this in this play are all so different, and all completely three-dimensional. You have Sophia, who’s the hard working matriarch, the mother figure who wants everything to go right. You’ve got her daughter Esther who’s 12 and has just won a scholarship to go to college, and you just pin all the hopes for the future of that country on this child in a way. Rosa is 18 and has just left the orphanage, and is just finding out what being a woman and what being independent means. Then you have Mavis, who it seems is enjoying herself and is confident, but there’s a moment in the play where someone accuses her of something and you just see this little girl, you just see her crumbling. The way Michael Buffong is making us tell the story is exceptional.

This is your second production at the National; do you enjoy working in that particular theatre?

It’s fantastic! It really is a dream job, my bar has always been set at the National Theatre, because it’s kind of a theatre that everybody in the country has access to and everybody knows about. It’s fantastic to be in a building that contains three individual theatres. There’s a minimum of two companies working in each of the theatre spaces, so at any time there’s at least six groups of actors who are interacting with each other, doing performances and using the facilities. There are all these departments ready for you, and it’s really conductive to you giving the best of yourself.

Do you think it succeeds in being a mainstream theatre and still dealing with controversial issues in the plays it puts on?

Absolutely. That’s why I think it’s incredible as an actor to have an opportunity to work there, because you can express yourself politically, you can be on the cutting edge of the most exciting theatre experience. They have the facilities and the money for you to be allowed to realise the expanse of whatever the story is. The Olivier stage is massive so people can tell massive stories with helicopter chains flying and ambulances driving onto the stage. You kind of go ‘Is that decadent?’ Well it can afford to be because it’s giving an absolutely massive experience to its audience. In this day and age where the Arts Council has to cut back so much, you wonder how we can expect young people to recognise their dreams and try and change the world. I love that as a young person you can get really really affordable tickets. When I did Death and the King’s Horseman, there were lots of black people who said ‘There’s nothing there for me’ and you think, ‘No!’ Look, you can pay twelve quid and see this play by Wole Soyinka and you’ll get something out of that. Theatre is for everyone and making it affordable and accessible is so important I think.

You’re a British actress, but you've played a lot of characters from African countries or colonies. How easy do you find it to relate to the mindset of someone from such a different background?

I do lots of reading so I research who these people are, where they’re from and what was happening at the time of the story being told. I also have this affinity with women from the Diaspora, my mother was born in St Lucia, and I feel I understand her; she’s my mother, she shared her loves, her fears, all sorts of things with me and that’s true with my aunts and the other women in my family who are not from Britain, so I have a connection to them. Also I love to travel and I’ve been to lots of different countries and I’ve stayed with families or I’ve just visited places and had a chat with someone who worked in the hotel I was in, just connecting with folks and listening to stories.

I went to Morocco about ten years ago with my partner and we were in this hotel and all the bar staff and waiters had degrees and it was because they had some connection to the king that they had a job they were so grateful for, just because of the way the country was run. And I just thought, ‘This is hardcore!’ There was one particular barman who had read Shakespeare in English and was asking us if we knew any Arabic literature and we were just aghast with our mouths open! That’s how stupid we felt, these people hadn’t left the country but their horizons were so broad and they were connecting with people who were visiting and that’s how they could expand in the world. And my luck was that I was born in this very wealthy country, very amazing country and I can afford to go to South Africa and be there for three weeks and try to get under the skin of what’s happening there. I’ve been very very blessed.

In many of the plays you’ve been in, your colour and the landscape associated with it has been essential to the plot. Do you ever feel typecast?

It’s interesting you know, because the mood of theatre has changed, there’s still a glass ceiling, we still have to convince people that we can play characters from anywhere, but I’ve been really blessed that I’ve been able to make choices about the sort of characters I play. For instance with Ruined, I was terrified, but I couldn’t wait to tell that story, because I didn’t know that girls were being raped at a rate of eleven hundred women daily. The world needs to know about that and why these people are kept in a perpetual state of war in the eastern Congo.

My bar has always been set at the National Theatre, because it’s kind of a theatre that everybody in the country has access to and everybody knows about. It’s fantastic to be in a building that contains three individual theatres. At any time there’s at least six groups of actors who are interacting with each other, doing performances and using the facilities. There are all these departments ready for you, and it’s really conductive to you giving the best of yourself.

I’m usually really passionate about the jobs I take, and the roles I want to play. I’m also very lucky, Nicholas Kent cast me in 2001 as a Russian 15 year old in The Promise, Michael Attenborough cast me as Ruth in The Homecoming, that’s the first time a black actress played her. I want young actresses and young people in general to be inspired. I want them to think ‘I can be an investment banker if I work hard it doesn’t matter if I’m from a care home, my brain is brilliant for figures and I want that.’ I want black kids to be ambitious, I don’t want them to ever say ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have any role models.’ I want them to know that if you work hard you can achieve your dreams.

Was being an actress always your dream?

Yeah, definitely, it wasn’t necessarily encouraged by my parents, but it certainly wasn’t discouraged. They let me go to youth theatre and go to performance and dance, even though we didn’t have very much money, but it was important to me so therefore it was important to them and I’m beyond grateful for that.

The Tricycle Youth Theatre has been very important for you. How old were you when you joined?

I’d just entered my teens and it was fantastic as a kid to get into drama and theatre. I see people now on the telly who are professional actors, and they came out of the youth theatre system. I didn’t go to drama school, I did what I call an apprenticeship, I did theatre and education at a theatre centre and I worked at Red Ladder, who toured working men’s clubs and youth clubs. I worked really hard for four years, touring the whole country and putting up and taking down the set, very different from the life I have now. I was doing stage management and the lighting and sound, everything, I learnt how to do all of it and I’m really grateful for that.

Do you feel you missed out on anything not going the usual drama school route?

I actually always encourage kids to go to drama school because you have peers. Most of the people in my youth theatre didn’t decide to act as a career. Also agents come to see you, you do shows where people collectively in the community know you’re around, so I might have benefitted a little bit more and a little bit earlier, but I should say I’m also quite a political animal. I didn’t want them to have to learn to deal with blacks, ethnics, Irish and northerners on my time; I didn’t want to have to be in other people’s learning curve. Back then, people didn’t mean it, but there was a great deal of institutional racism, and I think that has changed which is why I always say to young actors, go to drama school, learn the ropes there.

Inside and outside of theatre is there anything you’d like to pursue?

Inside the theatre I’ve got loads of things I still want to do, I want to do loads more Shakespeare and I want to win more prizes, but at the same time I’m quite happy with where I am and what I do within my work. Ten years ago I wasn’t, but now I feel I’ve proved to myself what I’m capable of and that’s a really good place to be, because now my challenges can come from other disciplines, I haven’t finished with acting at all, but maybe I’ll be brave enough to think about writing or directing. Outside of theatre, I love travelling and I’d love to be a really good singer, so maybe I’d like to take that a bit more seriously, so if that’s ever required in a role I can say I can do that. I really am very blessed, I’m so supported by my family and my friends and with that love and with hard work and determination I really do believe anything is possible.

Info: Don’t miss Jenny Jules in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the National Theatre from March 7 to June 9, 2012.

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