Theatre: Black Britain’s Mental Health and Don Kinch’s ‘Coming Up For Air

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

By Shaun Hutchinson
Wednesday, December 10, 2008.
The well-travelled Olusola Oyeleye’s talents (main picture) have been seen in opera, music theatre, and dance; as well as in education where she has been a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer and artist.
A judge for the BBC World Service African Theatre Competition in 2007, Oyeleye was resident director on Trevor Nunn’s production of Porgy and Bess, and the English National Opera’s first Black staff director. Her directing credits include Adzido Pan African Dance Company at the Royal Festival Hall; Call Me Mr Robeson; Scenarios, and The Resurrection of Roscoe Powell. 
Set to the music of Akin Euba her poetry has been performed at Cambridge University and at Harvard University in the USA, where she also worked on Euba’s pieces Orunmila’s Voices: Songs from the Beginning of Time (Orunmila is the Yoruba god of divinity) and; Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants in New Orleans and St Louis, Missouri respectively.
Oyeleye is the executive director of Bush Boy Productions, and associate producer with Collective Artistes. She has also worked in Africa with the British Council’s Write a Story initiative in Ghana, and in Zimbabwe, where she directed Shakepeare’sTwelfth Night. 
Her latest project is as Director for Nu Century Arts production of Don Kinch’s ‘Coming Up for Air’ which tells the story of a clash of ideas between a man charged with the murder of three political leaders and an Oxbridge educated psychiatrist.
But is he mad or bad? It’s a disturbing and dramatic piece that has been playing to packed theatres in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Written in 1987 and last performed in 2001, its subject matter is as relevant and topical now as when it was first penned.
A recently published central report is sobering. It reveals that although African Caribbean people do not have a higher prevalence of mental illness than any other ethnic group the number of Black people admitted to psychiatric hospitals continues to rise; that detention rates for people from African Caribbean communities is higher than that of any other ethnic group; similarly there is a trend for Black people to be misdiagnosed, over medicated, forcibly restrained and placed in seclusion. 
These are the explosive raw materials of ‘Coming Up For Air’. The New Black Magazine spoke with her recently.
What has the reaction been so far to the play?
We’ve had fantastic audiences and an absolutely brilliant response. We’ve had good audiences in Birmingham at The Drum and in Wolverhampton.
We also had an after show workshop and discussion with Handsworth, Birmingham, UK- based mental health organisation COPE; as well as an after-show speech by Dr Aggrey Burke, a leading psychiatrist from St Georges Hospital in London, on mental health in respect of the African and African-Caribbean communities.
Why has the play been revived now?
Because in its days – in the 1980s – dealing with issues that were very profound – there was a lot of political activity and agitation and now it’s almost hidden; people are not really aware of how serious this situation is; we’re not really aware of how young people are being taken into psychiatric care and how many young people are finding themselves in locked wards.  In the play we don’t abdicate responsibility for real crimes and in ‘Coming Up For Air’ the character Denzil Nurse has committed a real crime; it takes into the account that fact.
Underneath [the story] is the relationship between an African-Caribbean man representing in this play the Black community, and an African woman, [Dr Jules Wright] representing the society’s institutions. 
How have you directed the play, how do you tell this story on the stage?
I have created a set without walls so you can see all the different aspects of the [four] characters relationships. The main dialogue is between Denzil Nurse and Dr Jules Wright. The Guard is ever present and the premise is that there are no baddies; only people doing their jobs; and the play and story is acknowledging that in the midst of that scenario there are difficult situations.
I am looking at the observed and at the observer at all times; at times we are watching the performance and at some times the audience is also being watched.
The play dramatises quite bleak and dramatic incidents and tragic circumstances  – is there any hope in it?
I believe it is a hopeful production. Don Kinch [the play’s writer] doesn’t offer solutions in this play; what he offers is a chance for critical debate; a chance for us to have a look at this situation. So it is critical from a number of different perspectives. It is also very funny; there is a lot of humour.  I have also worked with Soweto Kinch to create a soundtrack for the play. I’m interested in sound as a conduit between our sane mind and our unsane mind. It’s a road we all walk precariously. A small incident can have a catastrophic result; someone can have an incident in the street and find themselves arrested or in the psychiatric unit.
You have had a versatile and diverse career; you’ve acted performed, written, taught – do you have a favourite aspect, can there be a favourite aspect?
I have been very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity, and to take the opportunity – you have to take them – to work here [in the UK] and abroad in a wide variety of areas. Underlying that is my commitment to work with emerging artists and young people; it underlines everything I do because you need to foster the next generation of artists, musicians, directors and artists.
You have experience of what is known as ‘mainstream’ theatre and not so ‘mainstream’; what have been the differences?
I don’t see it like that. I have worked both in West End productions and in a theatre in a community setting. The wonderful thing about having worked in the West End is that I can bring that skill to teaching adults, young and old; either here or abroad, or in community theatre. I can work on a large scale or on small intimate scale, with people who want to explore the arts as a means of communication. It’s symmetry; there’s no difference as such.
You have been involved in the recent production of  ‘Call Me Mr Robeson’, which you directed – what is the history of that piece, and will it get an extended run?
I have been interested in Paul Robeson for a long time; I worked with Tayo Aluko who also has a passion for Paul Robeson.  I worked with him [Tayo Aluko] as director and as dramaturge for four years on this script, to get it on stage and make it a piece of musical theatre that would remind people of the Civil Rights Movement prior to the 1960s. 
Paul Robeson was an extraordinary man who is all but forgotten in the social history of the USA.  As for getting an extended run we would like to. It’s been to the USA and Canada; it’s a dynamic play that has won awards and received good feedback. With our theatre it’s a journey to find a space, to seek funding, to put it on for a long period of time. So one of our theatres should give it ‘Call Me Mr Robeson’ a space.
What are the plans for ‘Coming Up For Air’?
I think Don Kinch has lots and lots of plans for it.  I would love for it to have had a long run at The Rep in Birmingham or one of the London theatres. We hope that people will come and see it and we will try and programme it for a longer run; it’s a brilliant piece.  The fact that it’s been around for twenty plus years is an achievement. We have these plays that only see the light of day in the period when they are first performed. I want these plays to not disappear into the ether.


Don Kinch

Coming Up For AirWritten by Don KinchDirected by Olusola OyeleyeMusic by Soweto KinchWednesday 10 to Saturday 13 December 2008:
A post-show discussion with the performers will be held on Thursday 11 DecemberRich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1Box Office: 020 7613 7498; Tickets: £12/£10; Time: 7.30pm
© 2008
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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