Bristol Old Vic

Princess & The Hustler

February 2019

Bus Boycott campaigners Roy Hackett, Paul Stephenson and Barbara Dettering chat with Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris and Eclipse Theatre Company artistic director and director of Princess & The Hustler, Dawn Walton. Photo by Harry Plowden

You had to be there

Bristol Old Vic welcomed Bristol’s pioneering civil rights campaigners Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett and Barbara Dettering to the press performance for Eclipse Theatre Company, Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre’s co-production Princess & The Hustler.

The new play by Bristol playwright Chinonyerem Odimba is set in 1960s Bristol on the cusp of change. Set against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott, the play demonstrates the personal impact of the Civil Rights movement on Bristol’s real communities at that time, through the lives of one black Bristolian family.

Paul Stephenson and Roy Hackett, Bristol’s original Bus Boycott campaigners, now in their 90s, attended last night’s performance as guests of honour, staying until the small hours to talk to the cast and share their extraordinary experiences with them.

'All the characters have hopes and dreams which have been variously disappointed by broken promises – from each other and from the British government. The home they were promised turned out to be a battleground. While Odimba’s play is occasionally over-expository, repeating conversation points we’ve heard already, its huge heart wins out, and it feels depressingly timely in the wake of the Windrush scandal,' Ben Kulvichit, The Stage

Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris today said: “Chino’s beautiful play and this collaboration with Dawn Walton’s brilliant Eclipse Theatre Company is set firmly in the context of Bristol’s 2018 Year of Change.

"Prompted by Ujima Radio’s Roger Griffith, we determined that our newly reopened theatre would renew its welcome to every community in the city, and celebrate the stories which matter most to the people who have made our city what it is.

"The story of the Bristol Bus Boycott and the community of St Pauls who fought to combat employment prejudice in the city is one of those stories which is both inspiring in relation to what the city might achieve in the future, and chastening in relation to the injustices which remain unaddressed.

"The night was made all the more special by the fact that Paul Stephenson and Roy Hackett, the original architects of the Bus Boycott, together with Barbara Dettering, who founded the St Pauls Carnival in its wake, were able to attend, closing an extraordinary circle of witness and celebration of their heroic achievements.”

In 1961, Bristol Evening Post exposed a ‘colour bar’ by the Bristol Omnibus company, preventing non-white people from working as bus drivers in Bristol. The prejudice was tried and tested in 1963, when Paul Stephenson, spokesman for the West Indian Development Council, sent his black student Guy Bailey to interview for a job as a bus driver. After a successful phone interview, Bailey proceeded to visit the Omnibus company, where he was promptly turned away and refused the job.

The West Indian Development Council founding member Roy Hackett and Paul Stephenson announced the Bristol Bus Boycott in April 1963, urging Bristol’s black communities to avoid taking the bus until the colour bar was lifted.

A month later, Bristol University students held a protest march in support of the boycott. The stand-off finally came to an end in August 1963, when the Omnibus company announced that there would be no more discrimination in employing bus crews.

Two years later, the British Government passed the first Race Relations Act of 1965, outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race in public places.

To celebrate the unity that helped end the colour bar on Bristol’s buses, Bristolian activist and social worker Barbara Dettering put on the first St Pauls Carnival in 1968, an annual African Caribbean carnival now held every July in Bristol. 

The Bristol Bus Boycott is now seen to be a pivotal moment in Black Civil Rights history, spearheading positive change across the UK.

Princess & The Hustler will run at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, February 23, before heading on a UK-wide tour.

In the 1960s there was little anti-discrimination legislation. Women in the civil service lost seniority when they got marriage or lost their jobs all together when they became pregnant.

Private housing was offered for rent stipulating ‘no blacks, no Irish, no pets’ not necessarily in that order.

There were ghetto areas for the poor, underprivileged and immigrants.

Rackman housing. The landlord who exploited his tenants.

Immigrants who came mostly from commonwealth countries with brown or black skin.

The Windrush generation were extended the hand of friendship by government minister of health Enoch Powell to come help rebuild after WW2 - only for the turncoat to make ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968.

The rise of black power to fight discrimination was almost like the empire fights back...

I was still at school when I read about the Bristol bus dispute which was presented as workers defending their jobs in many tabloid newspapers.

And in  July1969 while working at High Wycombe telephone exchange I gave B&B to a Rhodesian (now Zimbabee) relief telephonist.

But before I was 'allowed' to take her into my home as she was of African and Asian descent - it was explained by the exchange CEO that as I lived on a smart new housing estate - I was to told to ask my ex-husband’s permission for her to stay at our house.

I was furious when he hesitated.

I remember the date because she wanted so badly to watch Prince Charles investiture on our black and white tv and I did not and also she bought some eye-opening US magazines with her, one called Ebony which was trying to redress the discriminatory main stream publications with its positive message 'black is beautiful'.

Until moving to Bristol from London in 1978 I went on every anti-fascist and anti-aparthied demo in the captial and joined Amnesty International.

And while in the US in the 1990s we met the mother in her Manhattan apartment of one of the civil rights workers murdered in apartheid Mississippi.

It was another bus dispute which begun when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger which begun the fight back.

Carol Deacon

Princess & The Hustler

PREVIEW: Bristol Old Vic today announced the full cast for Princess & The Hustler, a new production from Eclipse Theatre, which has been co-produced with Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre.

The play is set against the backdrop of one of the most pivotal moments of the Black British civil rights movement – the 1963 Bristol bus boycott. 

The production will have its world premier in Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio from Saturday to Saturday, February 9-23, before touring venues nationally for two months.

Following last year’s acclaimed sell-out production of Black Men Walking, Princess & The Hustler is the second hidden historic Black British story to come out of Revolution Mix, an Eclipse movement that is spearheading the largest ever delivery of new Black British writing. 
Written by Bristol-based Chinonyerem Odimba (Medea), Princess & The Hustler, which was shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, will be directed by Eclipse Theatre’s artistic director Dawn Walton, who also directed Black Men Walking.

The play is designed by Simon Kenny (Black Men Walking, Sweeny Todd), with lighting design by Aideen Malone (A Monster Calls, Jane Eyre) and sound design by Richard Hammarton (The Mountaintop, Ripper St.).
Leading the cast as Phyllis ‘Princess’ James is Kudzai Sitima (Sonnet Sunday for The Globe, Random/Generations for Chichester Minerva Theatre), with Romayne Andrews (Hamlet, King Lear, Cymbeline for the Royal Shakespeare Company) as Leon, Donna Berlin (Of Kith and Kin for Sheffield Crucible/The Bush, Anna Karenina for the Royal Exchange/West Yorkshire Playhouse) as Mavis, Emily Burnett (The Dumping Ground for CBBC, The Snow Queen for Bristol Old Vic) as Lorna, Seun Shote (Black Mirror for Netflix, Unforgotten for ITV, Routes for Royal Court) as Wendell ‘The Hustler’, Fode Simbo (Young Marx for Bridge Theatre, Summer Of Rockets for the BBC) as Wendell ‘Junior’, and Jade Yourell (Absolute Hellfor the National Theatre, Country Girls for Chichester Festival) as Margot.  
Despite the 1963 Bristol bus boycott being a major turning point for Black British civil rights, the story is barely known outside of the South West.

The boycott, which led to the first Equalities and Discrimination laws, occurred when 18-year-old Guy Bailey was refused a job interview by the Bristol Omnibus Company because of the colour of his skin.

Set in this time, Princess & The Hustler is a family drama that tells the story of loveable protagonist Princess, a cheeky 10-year-old with a plan to win the Weston-Super-Mare beauty contest.

While Princess explores what it really means to be black and beautiful, her brother, a budding photographer, represents the beginning of an incredibly important moment in the documentation of Black British culture.

Dawn Walton said, “The fact that we have assembled such a fantastic cast for this new play is another indication of the growing excitement that is being generated in theatre through the Revolution Mix movement.

"The history matters.

"There were colour bars openly operating in the UK so recently in Britain, but it isn’t widely known.

"The actions and bravery of those involved in this protest should be celebrated across the country, and it’s incredibly important that we shine a light on the rich seam of material that completes the British story.”
Chinonyerem Odimba said, "To be writing a Bristol show in my local theatre that I am very much a part of feels like an absolute honour.

"I don't think many playwrights get to write stories that are set fully in a city that they know and love very dearly."
Through a series of workshops, the Eclipse team will also be looking for members of the black community from each of the towns and cities on the tour to be part of the community chorus and play an important part in the final production.

Those who are interested click HERE for more information on how to get involved or email any questions to engagement@eclipsetheatre.org.uk.

Princess & The Hustler plays The Weston Studio at 8pm with Thursday and Saturday matinees.

Tickets online from £16 by clicking HERE.

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