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Leaving with mother

Knowledge of your history is vital if you are black and British, playwright Winsome Pinnock tells Reva Klein.

A mother and her two daughters go to a professional fortuneteller to discover whether the elder is pregnant. The daughters are streetwise, clever and grounded in their lives but have a problematic relationship with their mother.

This is not a straightforward look at the generation gap. In Winsome Pinnock's play Leave Taking, the issues are far more complex. The mother, Enid, is Jamaican born. She left her own difficult mother working in the fields to come to England to give her children a better life. She achieved that through hard graft, at the cost of turning her back on her history, her culture and her identity - and her children's need to link with hertheir past. As a result, they have a one-dimensional understanding of who their mother is and what has made her.

Leave Taking, first produced in 1987 at the Liverpool Playhouse, is a play about relationships, identity and the role of the past in the present. It won Pinnock the George Devine Award in 1991. It is now the National Theatre education department's newest mobile production, for which Paulette Randall directs an all-black company.

Winsome Pinnock is first generation British, born here to Jamaican parents in 1961 and raised in north London. She admits that the play is autobiographical to some extent, but denies that the character of Enid is based on her mother. "The play doesn't reflect our relationship. I couldn't have written it if it did. But some of the themes of the play - being uprooted, the relationships between mothers and daughters - are of course real."

With the production now being taken on by the National, she has started to think about how young audiences, and young black people, will look at it, and particularly at how the play raises questions about being black and British. "I have been wondering about whether for young people today it is such an issue as it was for us.

"They seem much more confident about who they are. Black history is more available to them; they have a language with which to express themselves. But young black people face similar experiences now as then, too. They are still opppressed in this country and still gain self esteem through valuing their cultural history. Seeing a black company performing a play at the National will have significance, no matter what their background."

That there are few black playwrights, directors and actors seen at the National - or anywhere - is an issue that has shaped her art. "British culture has changed in so many ways over the years. Not to acknowledge that or become a part of the culture's enrichment by these influences is something that makes me sad. Where is theatre reflecting the exciting things happening between cultures, the possibilities of meeting on an equal basis?" To redress this imbalance, she is committed to "helping black actors find a way in" through her writing. "I hope my experiences as a first generation black British woman will continue to shape my work.

Her track record to date has been true to this commitment. Jules Wright's 1989 production of Pinnock's A Hero's Welcome at the Royal Court Upstairs was an exploration of why large numbers of West Indians left their homes and families to come to Britain. A Rock in Water, commissioned by the Royal Court Young People's Theatre in 1990, looked at the struggles of a West Indian woman to help her community to acclimatise to an unwelcoming Britain. Talking in Tongues in 1991 focused on the difficulties of integration and inter-racial relationships.

Pinnock says: "In England, it is hard to look at these kinds of isssues. One of the things about theatre is that characters can speak and touch on things that ordinarily might not be explored thoroughly."

But such opportunities are conspicuous by their absence. Pinnock is one of a handful of young playwrights who are determined to chip away at the conservatism and safeness of the theatre, to reflect what is going on out there with poetry, wit, emotion and intelligence. "I sometimes think the intellectual heart of theatre is not based in contemporary society. In the National they could afford to take more risks."

Leave Taking opens at the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury from December 8 to 10, then joins the Cottesloe repertoire on December 13 until January 14. Its national tour runs until the end of March. Post-show discussions, worksheets, schools packs and workshops on the themes of the play will be available to schools.

For tour information and booking details, ring 071-261 9808.

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