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This Play Was a Hard Cell

Commissioned to write about female drug couriers, playwright Winsome Pinnock got material for her Taper-bound 'Mules' from the horse's mouth--in Jamaican and London prisons.

June 15, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Playwright Winsome Pinnock, one of the fast-rising talents of the British theater, is both cutting-edge and traditional. A 35-year-old Londoner with concerns as up-to-the-moment as the daily news, she's part of a generation that came of age only to face the draconian social policies of Margaret Thatcher's Britain.

Perhaps because of that, she's also following squarely in the steps of some of the most highly regarded artists of the previous generation of British playwrights, among them Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond and David Hare. Unlike most American playwrights, these British dramatists revel in mixing topical, left-leaning politics with stage art.

Like these other playwrights, Pinnock cut her creative teeth at the Royal Court Theatre, the Sloane Square venue noted for bringing forth such seminal new plays as John Osborne's 1956 "Look Back in Anger" and long regarded as a haven for the avant-garde. Nor has she strayed far from the concerns of the theater that gave her her start.

Pinnock's latest work, titled "Mules," tells stories of women who work as couriers in the international drug trade. Directed by Lisa Peterson, it opens Tuesday at the Mark Taper Forum as the last entry in the theater's New Theatre for Now series, and was commissioned by the Clean Break Theatre Company and originally co-produced by Clean Break and the Royal Court in 1996.

"Mules" was shaped both by Pinnock's feminism and the research she conducted among women prisoners in Jamaica and London. "I am really fascinated by women and crime," says the elegantly composed and carefully articulate writer during a recent interview at the Taper.

"The thing that interests me about it is the relation of women to power, how women acquire power and what they do with it. It's about their relationship to capitalism in a way."

It's a relationship that's more complicated than she had initially suspected, she notes. "The notion I had of mules was that they were real victims," says the playwright. "The thing that surprised me was that the women didn't see themselves as that. Crime was actually a way in which they were trying to avoid being victims, to get out of poverty and give themselves some kind of a lifestyle."

Peterson was attracted to the play's social and political insights. "What I first responded to was its toughness, its clarity of political thinking," says the director who staged a workshop production of "Mules" at the Taper's '95-'96 New Work Festival.

"It has a Marxist point of view and a sense of humor, and it's hard to find those two things together," she continues. "What's also unusual is that it's a play about the abuse of power [in] a completely female world."


Pinnock's parents went to London from Jamaica in the late 1950s, part of a wave of West Indian migration. Her mother cleaned for a living and her father worked in a meat-packing factory; she is the third of four children.

Her working-class upbringing, however, didn't deter Pinnock from having creative ambitions at a young age. "I wrote as a child even, little stories and things," she says. "English was the thing I was always good at in school.

As an adolescent, Pinnock belonged to various drama groups and attended plays with her two sisters and other friends. In her teen years, she already was all but certain that she was headed for a life in the theater.

While studying drama and English at London University, Pinnock began to write plays. Then, after completing her studies, she joined the young writers' group at the Royal Court Theatre.

She outgrew the group quickly, however. "I spent a couple of years there, and they said, 'You should be writing and submitting now,' and chucked me out of the writers group so I could get on with things on my own," she recalls.

It didn't take long. At age 25, Pinnock had one of her scripts, "The Hero's Welcome," given a reading at the Royal Court. And things just took off from there, with a number of productions at both the Royal Court and smaller London companies following soon after.

In fact, so direct was Pinnock's career trajectory that she never had to bother with the mass mailings so familiar to beginning writers. "It wasn't that difficult for me," she says. "I only sent things to the Royal Court. I never thought to send them anywhere else."

Pinnock's plays "A Hero's Welcome," "A Rock in the Water" and "Talking in Tongues" were all produced at the Royal Court in the late '80s and early '90s.

In 1993, Pinnock was approached by the Clean Break Theatre Company, a small London-based touring group founded in 1979 by two women who at the time were incarcerated in Askham Grange prison. The company is committed to works that present issues of concern to female prisoners and former prisoners.

"They put on a play every year which is related to the prison justice system in England," Pinnock says. "The plays are written specifically to tour prisons, and also to play a conventional theater venue."

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