Blog: Michelle Inniss

The playwright write about her new production, inspired by a Big Issue vendor

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One of the questions many people ask me about my play, She Called Me Mother, is what inspired me to write it. Evangeline Gardner’s character, played by Cathy Tyson, was inspired by a homeless Afro-Caribbean woman I spoke to over a period of a year in 2006-2007. She sold The Big Issue in London Bridge Station. Instead of calling her aunty, which is a mark of respect for an elder in the Afro-Caribbean community, I unwittingly called her mother. Her eyes lit up and she smiled.

Each time I saw her, she wanted to give me something: a box of sweets, or when my mother passed away she gave me £3 to buy flowers on my way to the chapel of rest. I bought a single white rose from a flower stall beneath the arches in London Bridge Station. On one of the petals was a drop of water. It was a blustery day and I protected the rose by holding it inside my coat. When I reached the chapel of rest, the single drop of water, a dewdrop, remained.

I wondered what had come before this point in the woman’s life. What had brought her to this place? Where were her loved ones, her family? I created the character of Evangeline through her. The life I envisioned for 70 year old Evangeline was not an easy one – it was difficult to conceive of any other life for her. My overarching question was, “Which woman, at her age, would actively choose a life without a home to return to?” The answer was a woman whose home was unsafe.

“What had brought her to this place? Where were her loved ones, her family?”

When I think of my home, I immediately think of it as a place that I can retreat to from the daily pressures of the world around me. I look forward to returning there and sharing time with my loved ones. This is not the case for all people. One of the themes the play explores is the many years of domestic violence Evangeline has suffered at the hands of her husband Rodney. The second character in my play is Evangeline’s daughter, Shirley, played by Chereen Buckley. After leaving home at the age of 16, she too finds herself with nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

When I thought about the elderly homeless woman, who could have been my mother, I wanted not only to write about her situation but to help in some way. She opened my eyes to the fact that the homeless person you or I pass by each day could quite easily be you or me. Lose your job, accumulate rent arrears – you can end up homeless. Escape from an abusive partner with no family to turn to – you can end up homeless. It’s simple as that.

My family are supporters of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway and our company, Pitch Lake Productions, has worked closely with them. As part of our research, Cara Nolan (our director), Cathy Tyson and I have read Rebuilding Shattered Lives, an in-depth report into women’s homelessness spearheaded by St Mungo’s Broadway. The life that Evangeline and Shirley live in the world of the play is not unlike the lives of many women in our society who have suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse at the hands of a partner – abuse which all too often can, and does, lead to homelessness.

Evangeline’s character speaks in the Trinidadian vernacular. My parents are from Trinidad so the vernacular is well situated within me. Some audience members may be familiar with this, and for others this may be their first encounter with it. I feel certain, however, that the audience will delight in the richness of Evangeline’s conversation and the many tones her language produces. Also, Cathy’s portrayal of Evangeline is quite simply captivating.

Our vision for this production is for Evangeline’s voice to be heard. Through her story, we want to awaken your humanity, to take you on a walk through her life, and at the end of this journey we would like to leave you with the desire to seek answers to some unasked questions: how can I help to prevent this in the future? Why is homelessness accepted as a normal part of our society? How can we change this?

She Called Me Mother is at The Lowry on Fri 13 Nov and Sat 14 Nov. The tour has been made possible through Black Theatre Live (BTL), a pioneering national consortium of eight regional theatres committed to effecting change for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) touring theatre. BTL is working with emerging and established BAME companies and artists from across England to commission and tour high quality productions.

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