Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Julene Robinson: The Night Woman

By | Published on Friday 4 March 2022

We’ve featured lots of plays that should have been on at the sadly cancelled Vault Festival this year, in both Q&As and our Three To See section… and they keep on coming. The latest to catch our eye – and it really is very eye-catching – is ‘The Night Woman’, on in The Other Palace’s studio this week.

It’s the work of Julene Robinson, who also performs the play, and is inspired by the writer’s Caribbean grandmother.

I was really intrigued by this piece, and wanted to find out more about it and its creator. So I spoke to Julene ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the story the show tells? Who is the play about and what happens in it?
JR: ‘The Night Woman’ is a gripping poetic tale of a woman’s journey into the dark where she finds wisdom, healing and redemption. The play was inspired by my grandmother, affectionately called Miss Ayo, who was a powerful Caribbean woman who loved her family and community dearly. She was relentless through all the trials and tribulations that befall a Caribbean woman who unapologetically chooses to hold on to all the things that made her black.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JR: Darkness – our director, the amazing Martina Laird, calls the play a treatise. We are shifting the way we look at and experience darkness. We are challenging the metaphor that darkness is all bad and nothing else. This will of course lead to challenging darkness as blackness but the conversation moves beyond blackness in a lot of ways. Darkness is not only a place of pain, but is also the place of love.

Womanhood – as a black woman, my experience of darkness and blackness is a specific one. My experience of womanhood is intertwined with my Black identity.

Healing – Right now, the world needs to be having deeper and deeper conversations about healing. We have collectively been injured by the last two years and we have more harm coming our way. Healing cannot be achieved with a wave of a hand. Healing requires continuous tending, and this piece was a part of that and I hope that it provides a balm for the people who need it the most. I want it to be a piece that we can all come back to when we need it.

CM: What inspired you to write it?
JR: A few years ago I came to the UK to pursue a masters at Rose Bruford College. Right after that I entered one of the most difficult periods in my life. I started to recognise and acknowledge the impacts of culture shock. I started to experience racism in a notable way. I started to observe the racism around me and I became consumed by the ‘why is the world this way’ kind of thing.

I lost myself a little bit there for a minute. I went home at one point and as I walked into my family home, my grandmother took one look at me and said everything is going to be okay. She then said “as a matter of fact, come with me”. She then proceeded to bath me in fresh coconut water. She prayed over me, she loved and tended to me in a physical way and I slept for the next five days. She reminded me of who I am. No matter what the world says, I should never forget that I am worthy and loved.

I had to put pen to paper. Actually, I didn’t do that at first. One winter night, while it was snowing in Stratford, I had an idea and asked our media designer to take their camera and come with me. The idea was of a woman, quite like my grandmother, walking through the streets of England trying to find me. We all need that person that will come find us in our ‘darkest’ times. From that moment the words followed and ‘The Night Woman’ was born.

CM: The show has been in development since 2018, I believe…? Have the global events of recent years had an impact on your creative process and the finished product?
JR: They certainly have. After two development processes with Arcola Theatre and Theatre Deli, we were programmed to premiere in the eighth week of Vault Festival 2020, but our show was cancelled as the first lockdown was announced.

That disappointment, along with the fact that the world was falling apart, was a lot to handle. It was hard. However, I took a chance and applied to the Barbican Centre Open Lab. I was honoured to be selected for the programme, and I got the opportunity to go into the studio with the work again and play and expand some more. So even though it was hard, some really good and interesting things came out of that time.

The difficulty of that time has led these amazing creatives to gather in the name of ‘The Night Woman’ and that completely shifted the process of making it. I am no longer trying to make this work. We are making this work together. I love that so much.

CM: Did you always plan to perform it yourself? What’s it like performing your own work? Does it have an impact on the dynamic between you and your director?
JR: Yes. I always planned on it being a solo show. Partly because I couldn’t afford to hire actors and creatives at the time, but also because I think solo shows are hard. It can be like walking a tightrope with no back up.

The risk is quite thrilling to me. Mostly because I spent most of it terrified. Haha. This will be the first time I will ever perform my own work in this way. I wrote a poem once for a competition and I forgot half of it while performing it. Oh good times. Not.

Working with our director Martina is amazing actually. She approaches the work like the writer is distinguished from the actor but also not at the same time. I don’t know how she does it. I trust her completely and yet she is guided by my work and it’s a very interesting and beautiful dynamic.

CM: What hopes do you have for the play after the upcoming run?
JR: I’m so grateful to The Other Palace offering us a new home after the cancellation of Vault Festival 2022. ‘The Night Woman’ was selected in the top Vault Five, so thanks to the swift programming of the premiere of the show in a new venue, it will finally come out of the shadows and be on stage.

I know it’s going to be a wonderful experience not only due to the aspect of performing this piece for the first time in front of an audience – but also working with my amazing team and seeing the fruit of our work take space and shine.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, now? Did you always want to be a performer and how did your career begin?
JR: I am an environmental chemist. And I used to work as a chemist. A lot of people don’t know that about me. I always wanted to be a scientist. I think that was the first thing I ever told a person who asked me what do you want to be when you grow up. I am the ‘but why?’ kid. This is my foundation.

If you look deep enough in ‘The Night Woman’ you will find principles of string theory, quantum physics and laws of thermodynamics. Some of those were my jam in university. However while I was in my analytical chemistry class I was daydreaming about installation, performances and stories. I wanted to dig into and tell stories that were inspired by the topics I was learning about.

While I was studying for my degree in chemistry I would still be going to the theatre everyday. When I was working at a brewery in Jamaica, I would get to work at 6am because I couldn’t do overtime because I had to be at the theatre by 5:30pm.

I then decided that I couldn’t ignore my dedication to theatre anymore. I pursued my masters in theatre, and what better place to do it than in Theatreland? I have been performing since I was a toddler though. I was a dancer for most of my earlier life, then I went into academics and now I’m grabbing both of those aspects of me by the horns and am making new worlds with them.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
JR: Playing on London’s West End is a big one, as Bob Marley’s mum in the musical ‘Stand Up, Get Up!’ Although I would say the first highlight was working with the theatre company University Players in Jamaica that inspired me to go into theatre. That was such a great experience.

I was recently seen in ‘The Witcher’ on Netflix and the reception of that, especially from Jamaican viewers, was humbling. That for sure was a big highlight.

I was speaking with my best friend and fellow creative Veronique Smith last night and she said: “Julene, you’re in a country and a town that is relatively new to you, and you are doing your own show with a team in an off West End Venue”. So yes, ‘The Night Woman’ is definitely a highlight. I am very proud of that. We have come a long way.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JR: OMG, there are so many. “What would you like to do today Pinky…? Try to take over the world”. Haha. Where do I begin? There are a few more productions I would like to create. I want to be a part of the pantheon or great storyteller. That is my ultimate goal. That will take me into film. Television, installations, more theatre. I have some great stories to tell and I want to tell them.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JR: I’m currently looking into taking ‘The Night Woman’ to the Edinburgh Festival. We are working on that. She doesn’t know this yet but I want to do another show with our producer Emma Blackman. She is so good in so many many ways. Emma is so good I would encourage everyone to scoop her up but I would love to get another show between the two of us first. Hahaha, I am being completely selfish in my fantasy of course.

‘The Night Woman’ is on at The Other Palace studio from 11-13 Mar. See this page here for more information and to book.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Henry Robinson