“It feels like there’s never been a more important time to really dig deep and be clear about what it is we stand for and celebrate the huge-ness of being women”
An interview with Jenny Davis by Bethan Stone
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Jenny Davis, a playwright, actor and Bristol legend. She will be performing a one-woman piece on Windrush icon, Princess Campbell and Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. The piece encapsulates the barriers black women faced at their time though they lives 100 years apart – Jenny lets me on what it’s like to portray such iconic women and what life was life for both of them in Bristol.
B: What exactly is your performance at IWD?
J: I’ll be performing a one woman theatre piece, it was commissioned by Bristol Women’s Voice last year and I performed it in October last year at the Arnolfini, I’m reprising it again, it’s called Leave Without Rattling. The piece is based on Princess Campbell, who was a well known Bristolian Windrush generation nurse and icon, the first Jamaican ward sister in Bristol. And it’s also connected with Mary Seacole, who is a historical Jamaican nurse and icon, and so the theatre piece is sort of a conversation between these two women and I weave these to women’s path together.
B: What was about these two women, 100 years apart, that means their lives marry together so well?
J: Well, the obvious link is that they’re both Jamaican women, both in nursing profession but also both pioneers in their own way and I think pushing through barriers. Mary Seacole, as a Jamaican woman of colour at the time, was a free woman but there was still slavery so a lot of people weren’t free. She moved around with a huge amount of freedom and was determined to do what she felt was important to do despite the barriers. And then Princess Campbell, being one of many nurses who came to England and dealt with the challenges and the discrimination of the time, and as a black nurse at that time there was a lot of racism and barriers in the profession. Black nurses were often given the worst jobs to do, emptying the bedpans and clearing up sick and Princess had put herself out and did the extra training and deputised for the matron’s role but wasn’t able to fulfil the role when it became available. I think for a lot of people it’s the case of – it doesn’t matter what those barriers are, what separates you from the rest is whether you decide to give up or not. Whether you decide if you’re still gong to be tenacious or defined by whatever society has decided you are. And as two women of colour, in their different timeframes, they still showed incredible courage.
The story that I took from Princess was from her son. There’s a lot already known about her from her profile and in the papers, she went to Buckingham Palace and she had been rightly celebrated and acknowledged but there’s an anecdote in the performance – and it’s something I focused on in the piece. For me, it optimised the feeling when you’re dealing with discrimination or oppression or whatever those barriers are, sometimes they show up in the most innocuous way. Sometimes it’s not as big as name calling, or not being put forward for a promotion but the thing that struck me in the story was over a receipt for £2 so it’s something I felt that I could do something with that.
B: Do you have a favourite character to play out of the two women? And do you think you’ve made them your own or have you tried to base them on stories you’ve heard?
J: Well I’m actually writing a full length play about Mary Seacole anyway which I’ve been working on for about a year now. So when I was approached about this particular project, the research on Mary Seacole wasn’t a problem because I already felt like I knew Mary – I’d been living with her for quite a while! But I feel like I’ve come to know Mary, I think it’s difficult when you are writing about somebody who people still know and so with Princess I had to be more careful. I wanted people to know that I wasn’t going to try to play Princess, and I am not going to be Princess. It’s pretty much about trying to show a story to show some element of what that struggle was like.
B: Was it important for you to perform this at International Women’s Day?
J: I was very pleased to be asked, because I think International Women’s Day continues to be important. For years we’ve been celebrating it, but probably now in this present climate, it feels even more important. It feels like there’s never been a more important time to really dig deep and be clear about what it is we stand for and celebrate the huge-ness of being women. I was a feminist from my 20s, and I still feel despair that some of the arguments that I heard and that I thought we were fighting years ago, we’re still saying those things now. That always leaves me thinking ‘are we still here?!’ But International Women’s Day has just got to be about making our mark constantly, using our visibility and celebrating it.
Report by BWV reporter Bethan Stone