For Zawe Ashton it’s the perfect homecoming: her precisely typographically titled play for all the women who thought they were Mad is premiering in her home neighbourhood of Stoke Newington in Hackney, east London – in, with happy coincidence, Black History Month. But such is the international nature of her career right now, she can’t be there for opening night.
When we call it’s 8am in New York, where Ashton is starring – alongside Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox – in the Broadway transfer of Betrayal, the hit Harold Pinter production that played to critical raves in London in the summer. But before getting down to discussing her work, the first thing Ashton announces is how thrilled she is to be featured in The Face – again.
“You know I was in The Face when I was 16?” she asks, clearly still thrilled at the memory. “Seriously. [Photographer] Elaine Constantine came to the drama class I was in at the time and did this incredible spread, which was all young people going mad in a park in London. It’s a pleasure to be revisiting it.”
Following her memorable breakout role as Vod in Channel 4 student flatshare comedy Fresh Meat, Ashton’s career has exploded, and in multiple directions. The 35-year-old was a stand-out in fashion designer Tom Ford’s critically acclaimed directorial debut Nocturnal Animals (2016) and, more recently, in Netflix art-scene thriller Velvet Buzzsaw. Her revelational part-memoir, part-fiction book Character Breakdown was published this year. And, for the last six months her working schedule has been dominated by Betrayal.
“I just feel so proud because it’s the first time I’ve ever done any Pinter,” she says with no signs of fatigue four months into the role. “You have to be so switched on. His work is so visceral, especially for the character that I play. It’s an edgy part written for a woman. She’s a mother of two, she’s having an extra-marital affair, and when she’s actually with child she’s continuing her affair, physically. That’s edgy.
“What I love about Pinter is he doesn’t shy away from the brutality of what it is to be human,” she continues. “We’re all fallible, we all make mistakes, but he never makes anyone in the play accountable for their mistakes. He allows you to live through them. Roles for women like that are just so refreshing.”
It was an urgency to create her own roles that inspired Ashton to start writing. After graduating from Manchester School of Theatre in 2006 she went on to write and produce several plays, including Skunk (about weed and family dynamics), She From The Sea (a tale of three women who move to the seaside to forget their pasts) and Harm’s Way (a dark comedy on youth). But one of those remained unstaged until now. Written when she was 24 for all the women who thought they were Mad, makes its world premiere as part of a Hackney Showroom pop-up theatre in Stoke Newington Town Hall this month.
Positioned as an “urgent piece of theatre” the play examines mental health and the effects of institutional racism imposed against black women living in contemporary Britain today. The fact that it falls during Black History Month is a “delicious surprise.”
In her early twenties, Ashton struggled to find her voice and playwright identity, acknowledging that, “I saw other people really establishing that and I felt lost for a while.” But starting to piece together fragments of for all the women who thought they were Mad, she realised that the key to writing success is confidence. The work was submitted to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Festival in 2009 but, for reasons of which she’s still unsure, it was never staged.
Now, though, a decade later, the public discussion and awareness of mental health are never more widespread. So its author is taking back ownership, and feels it’s the perfect time to stage the play.
“I wrote this specifically because I wanted it to be an invitation,” she states. “There must be more invitations to talk about these issues. It’s taken 11 years because the way I’ve written is so abstract, and it’s also black. These subjects go through the mill at the best of times.”
Ashton began by researching statistics and personal testimonies of women of colour who had experienced a cultural bias. Looking at the files at the now defunct Black Women’s Mental Health Project in Kentish Town, Ashton came across statistics stating that resources weren’t readily available to the black community. This finding confirmed her own instincts.
“Systemic racism isn’t anything new, but there’s always been something I’ve intuited, even as a very young woman, about the cultural chasm that can happen when you are a women of colour or a woman who’s not from the West, asking to be medically helped.
“There is an assimilation that is expected of you, and we all are trying to survive and trying to cope. But it just so happens that if you get to a point where the daily microaggressions start to widen, you get worn out and your mind can suffer. But that doesn’t mean that you’re mad,” Ashton points out firmly, “which is why the title is so important.”
The play was written in a whirlwind 24 hours, which isn’t something she’d recommend.
“It’s been described recently as a fever dream, and I think that’s very much what it is: it came in a fever. It came from me because something had been unlocked, a truth for me.”
She remembers the play’s first public reading, at the Royal Court Theatre all those years ago, and the powerful and palpable response from an audience moved to tears. Understandably, she’s hopeful to replicate that response on stage in Hackney this month. As she says, what she wants audiences to take away from the production is a feeling: that these are widespread issues, and that support is out there. And so the play acts as a catalyst for discussion.
“I think we should really be talking about help. There are so many ways that black communities are dissuaded from getting professional help. I think we need to crack that open, talking publicly about the situations that affect us,” Zawe Ashton concludes passionately. “It doesn’t start necessarily with the community. But I feel like [medical institutions] need to start to really address the statistics that do exist with regards to women of colour and mental health. That’s a conversation that has started to happen but not enough. And I want to be part of that conversation.”
As for premiering this postponed work in N16 it only adds to the potency for Ashton.
“Stoke Newington, my heartland – that’s profound. It just feels very full circle.”