Jamaican Yvonne Brewster, is one of the founders of Talawa, the longest-running Black theater company in the United Kingdom. Brewster consulted a dictionary of the English spoken in Jamaica and found the word “Tallawah.” She liked it right away, “Sure – my mother always used to say to me, ‘Yuh lickkle yuh know but yuh tallawah – that means you’re small but you’re strong.” Brewster changed the spelling to “Talawa” so the three “As” would allow for more graphic design options.
Yvonne Brewster was born in 1938 in Kingston, Jamaica. She credits her maternal Polish grandfather with inspiring her creative side. Although he was trained as a lawyer, he became a funeral director because “dem Jamaicans love a nice funeral” and became wealthy. Brewster was the recipient of her grandfather’s stern education, which included reading Dickens, singing “Lullaby of Broadway,” and becoming familiar with Shakespeare, who, according to him, does not only belong to Europeans, but to the world.
Brewster entered Rose Bruford College when she was 17. When she traveled to Sidcup in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, she thought that her life in England would always be like that. Now she laughs at those expectations, saying it was the last time she was in a Rolls-Royce. She went into directing because she could not get stage roles. She returned to Jamaica in 1965 to use her drama degree and established the island’s first professional theater company, The Barn, in her father’s garage.
In the early 1970s, Brewster returned to Britain permanently and began her professional directing career. She co-founded the Carib Theater in 1983, a small touring company for young Black people, but she discovered she hated touring. She ultimately left her van full of props in the middle of the road with the keys in it, hoping someone would steal it. Ken Chubb, director of the Tricycle Theater, found the van and returned it to Brewster, advising her to find out about Arts Council funding.
Brewster led the Talawa theater company from 1986 to 2001, producing 29 shows in various genres, including classics from Africa, America, the Caribbean, and Britain. These stagings gave Black performers overlooked by mainstream theater companies in the UK the chance to enhance their repertoires.
Brewster received an OBE in 1993 for her contributions to the British theater. The United States National Black Theater Festival awarded her a Living Legend award in 2001, and she received an honorary doctorate from the Open University in the UK. She has also won a Bafta award.
Her last production was in 2001: Kwame Dawes’ “One Love” at the Bristol Old Vic. She went on to act on television in the BBC1 production “Doctors,” but left due to a heart malady.
At age 82, Brewster now lives in Florence with her husband and is compiling Black plays for publication. Reviewing the changes occurring in the theater world over the years, she noted that Black actors have power now, and she hopes they will use it in positive ways to influence the future. She also hopes that Black Lives Matter will last and “won’t be a flash in the pan.” She also noted the great losses to theater imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talawa decided recently to end its partnership with the Birmingham Rep after the Rep announced it would use its space to host a Nightingale Court. According to Talawa, the move was a threat to “the integrity of the Black Joy season.” While Brewster is no longer in contact with Talawa, she said that “political awareness in a creative situation comes with a price tag.”
Photo: Yvonne Brewster Facebook