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Playwright making her voice heard

DESERVED RECOGNITION: Charlene James at the recent Evening Standard Theatre Awards

PLAYWRIGHT AND actor Charlene James has been hailed as ‘a voice of the future’ and is collecting a growing number of national awards, yet little has been heard about her in her home city of Birmingham.

Sadly, good news never travels as fast as bad, and that has to be the reason why Charlene James’s star is not shining as brightly as it deserves to be in her own backyard. It probably also has to do with the fact that this talented 34 year-old is extremely modest and unfazed as she rubs shoulders with royalty and A-list celebrities. She revealed that she recently spent “a really surreal evening” chatting with Prince William and Elton John at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards night.

Charlene was part of the A-list line-up as she picked up the Charles Wintour Award for the Most Promising Playwright 2016 for her groundbreaking play Cuttin’ It, which focuses on the ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The play, a co-production between London’s Young Vic and the Royal Court, has already scooped the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play. It’s also picked up a BBC audio award after being adapted as a play for Radio Four. These accolades reflect the esteem in which Charlene is held for wanting to get inside the heads of those who still practise barbaric FGM on teenage girls.

It focuses on two 15 year-olds living in Britain, originally from Somalia, but who are from different worlds. The girls get to know each other and realise how their families share a painful secret.

Charlene told The Voice that she wrote Cuttin’ It after being strongly affected by Leyla Hussein’s Channel 4 documentary The Cruel Cut.

“When I started researching FGM, a lot of people did not even know what it was,” said Charlene.

“It’s had some media attention, but it remains a taboo subject – some people said they simply don’t want to know. Others felt worried about seeing the play, as they thought it might be too traumatic, but I feel it’s so important that this issue is out there.

“I felt it was also important to show the girls as everyday 15 year-olds — the kind of teenagers you see every day on the bus going to school.

“It would be brilliant if the play could be taken into schools because this all starts with the next generation.”

Charlene did her research and contacted the leading African diaspora women’s campaign FORWARD, the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development, which does some great work on highlighting FGM issues.

She has also been praised by the two actors who took part in the play — Adelayo Adedayo and Tsion Habte.

Adelayo said:

“Charlene’s play really makes you think.

“It makes you realise it can be something that happens to the girl who sits next to your daughter at secondary school.”

Charlene was educated at Hillcrest Girls’ School in Birmingham and trained at the Birmingham School of Acting and Chicago’s School at Steppenwolf. She began acting but found she was happiest writing plays on subjects she is passionate about – mental health and children being forced to lose their innocence too early through rituals such as arranged marriages.

In 2013, Charlene became a Writer in Residence at Birmingham’s Rep Theatre for their season focusing on mental health. Her play Tweet Tweet was commissioned by the Rep as part of Young Theatre Makers and premiered there before touring. She has also written, Jump! We’ll Catch You, which explores the role of the theatre in the mental health system.

She moved to London about 10 years ago, but her heart still remains in Birmingham, which she says is “just a train ride away”. She feels the city is going through “a huge renaissance”.

Charlene’s Jamaican-born parents Frank and Pat instilled in her the ethics of working hard.

“Mum and Dad have always been so supportive of both me and my sister,” said Charlene.

“And they supported me when I kept on saying I wanted to be an actress – they knew I was passionate about the arts.
My mum even signed me up for Stage2, a Birmingham youth theatre.”

Sadly, she feels that diversity still has a long way to go in the theatre and television industry with far too few black people both on stage and off, which is mirrored on screen too.

“Like many people today, I’m sick of hearing the word diversity, but until something changes, we have to keep on talking about it,” she told The Voice.

“Often I am conscious of being brought into a room because I am black and female, but I know I have to be good enough to stay in that room.

“When I visit theatres and look around at the audience, so many are white and middle aged, because they are usually the only people who can afford the price of the theatre tickets. This too has to change.”

And what advice does Charlene have for those who want to follow her career path?

“Go and see as much theatre as you can – from Noel Coward to Alan Bennett; be tenacious and create your own self,” she said.

“If something is not happening for you, don’t expect your agent to find all the work for you – be prepared to create work for yourself."

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