Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Shereener Browne: PlayFight

By | Published on Friday 19 May 2023

Coming up soon at the Pleasance Theatre is ‘PlayFight’, a new play about the changing relationship between a group of friends which explores some really important themes, not least racism and adultification bias. 

The play was written by Christina Alagaratnam, based on an idea from the founder and Artistic Director of producing company Orísun Productions, Shereener Browne. It’s directed by co-Artistic Director Leian John-Baptiste. 

I spoke to Shereener to find out more about what to expect from the play and about the creatives behind it. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about what happens in ‘PlayFight’? What story does it tell?
SB: ‘PlayFight’ follows best friends Kai, TJ and Zara. They have grown up together and have been friends since nursery. But as the years passed, their relationship began to change.

Society started demanding more of them. Expecting them to grow up too quickly; to adapt to a world that sees them as ‘other’. This places a strain, not just on their friendship, but on their mental health.

Things come to a head when Zara is accidentally hurt during a play fight at school. In the aftermath, it is not only the friendship that dies. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
SB: The play explores the themes of racism, adultification bias and mental health.

CM: This feels like a very political play. What message does it send?
SB: Ha! Life is political! I guess the message is that every child deserves to have a childhood, including black children.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play and what made you want to stage it?
SB: The idea behind the play came from an incident that happened at my son’s school. He was play fighting with some friends – who were all black – and rather than just seeing it for what it was – boisterous but harmless play – a teacher heavy-handedly separated them and told them off; for just playing!

This was primary school, so the children were no older than six or seven! That was surprising in itself but what made the teacher’s response even more worrying was the fact that some white children were playing in much the same way but she chose not to go to that group.

I wanted to create a piece that examined the effect this might have on the young person who is subjected to such discriminatory treatment. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the writer?
SB: Christina Alagratnam is an award-winning writer with a keen observational eye for detail. Although she is not of the ‘PlayFight’ world – she is British Sri Lankan – she nonetheless manages to write about these young people as if she is in their shoes.

This is due, in no small part, to the extensive research and development process we undertook with her that spanned three years, using workshops with actors and young people from the black community. She does also live in Croydon, so there’s that!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the director of the play and the cast?
SB: The director Leian John-Baptiste is a young man of St Lucian heritage and co-Artistic Director of Orísun.

He has a passion for storytelling, developing characters and worlds for audiences to enjoy and is committed to improving diversity by telling more untold stories, whilst at the same time championing unheard voices.

Leian’s credits as assistant/staff director include the US tour of ‘Barbershop Chronicles’, as well as ‘is god is’ and ‘Small Island’, both at the National Theatre.

Zara is played by Carla Garratt who trained at the world renowned Ecole Philippe Gaulier in France and the National Youth Theatre. Her theatre credits include ‘Belongings’ for Tangled Feet and ‘Bible John’ at the Vault Festival.

Kai is played by Iain Gordon, who trained with Intermission Youth Theatre. His theatre credits include ‘Othello’ at Omnibus Theatre and his screen credits include ‘Dropped’, ‘Yodel Boys’ and ‘Casualty’. 

TJ is played by Landry Adelard, who trained at the Mountview Academy Of Theatre Arts. His theatre credits include ‘Prurience’ at the Southbank Centre and ‘Liberian Girl’ at the Royal Court Theatre, and screen credits include ‘Guerilla’, ‘Casualty’ and ‘Excluded’. 

All three have contributed to the rehearsal process by bringing their own experiences of racism and adultification to help bring the characters to life.

CM: Can you tell us about the post show events and workshops that will accompany the run at The Pleasance?
SB: There will be two post show panel discussions on 31 May and 2 Jun. They will be chaired by Leanne Levers PHD, co-founder of Dope Black Women. The actors, director and writer will be joined for each panel by mental health professionals as well as experts from the criminal defence world.

Additionally we are running three workshops for children aged fifteen to eighteen on 31 May, and 1 and 2 Jun, at The Pleasance. The workshops will be run by Attic Theatre and will use role play and other drama games as a way of discussing the difficult issues raised by the play.

The young people will also get the chance to work with some of the actors and creative team. The workshops are entirely free and also include a free ticket to see the show!

CM: Can you tell us about Orísun Productions, its history and your role in it? What are its aims and ethos?
SB: The idea for Orísun came out of my frustration at the lack of roles for a black woman of my age.

Most of the roles coming my way were ones depicting a very narrow and stereotypical view of black life: the mother of a gang member, the crack whore – I kid you not – or the slave. 

A chance meeting with the late actor Seun Shote and discussions with a friend, who I met on a part time drama course, ultimately led to the founding of Orísun.

Our aims are simple. We want to  provide a platform for creatives from the African diaspora, with the specific aim of breaking down stereotypes and producing theatre that promotes diversity and encourages the telling of our stories our way.

CM: And now, can you tell us about yourself? How did you come to be working in the arts? What made you follow this path and switch from your previous career?
SB: I am a child of the 70s. Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire to hard-working parents from St Kitts & Nevis in the Caribbean.

I was always creative. Always singing, dancing and performing. In fact, my mother, a seamstress, was very creative and was part of the movement that founded the Leeds West Indian Carnival, a street festival that predates the Notting Hill Carnival. She won several carnival competitions for her costume-making and was a Carnival Queen herself. 

Creativity and performance is in my blood. I suspect that had I been born later or in a situation of wealth, I would have gone to performing arts school. But instead I was urged to go into a profession that would earn money and lift me out of poverty. That’s where the law came in and I qualified as a barrister in 1996.

But performance and creativity were never far away and in 2016, during a period in my life when I was a full-time carer to three children plus my mother, I fell into acting and used it as a source of therapy. Turns out I was rather good at it!

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
SB: I consider myself blessed and fortunate. Almost every aspect of my creative life is a source of learning as well as pleasure for me; even the ‘bad’ bits!

From my first performances as Lady Macbeth in a tiny black box theatre in New Cross, to performing before hundreds of people as Lorraine, the lead role in Natasha Gordon’s ‘Night Night’, co-produced in 2022 by Leeds & Nottingham Playhouse.

From producing Orísun’s first show as a profit share in a small, cold concrete box, again in New Cross, to now producing a fully grant-supported play at the well-known Pleasance Theatre in Islington.

All have brought me joy, fulfilment and happiness.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SB: Besides continued happiness? To have more time! There are simply not enough hours in the day! Seriously though, the plan is to open a theatre space dedicated to African Caribbean writing. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SB: You will have to watch this space. Content loading, I think is what the young people would say!

‘PlayFight’ is on at Pleasance Theatre from 29 May – 3 Jun 2023. For information and tickets see the venue website here – and for details on the workshops see the company site here

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Photo: Tom Trevatt