Susan Wokoma sits opposite me in a very busy, very noisy café. This doesn’t detract from the talented star of E4’s Chewing Gum. She’s engaging and talkative which always makes for a good interview. We’re discussing the motivation and drive behind the character Cynthia in Michaela Coel’s comedy drama.

With the series regularly trending on Twitter, Chewing Gum has received unlimited praise since its airing last October. Adapted from Coel’s play Chewing Gum Dreams, and set on an inner city council estate, Chewing Gum observes the daily lives of the estate’s inhabitants in blistering comedy, the kind that has your mouth wide open because you just can’t believe what was spoken, acted or seen across your television screen – even by today’s seen-it-all-before standards. What lays at the underbelly of the production is love. The characters really do care about each other even if in an, albeit, dysfunctional way!

So what’s the motivation for Cynthia?

Family, familiarity, safety. It’s all she’s ever known. She’s very sheltered. From the onset you see that she wants to stay with her sister [Tracey]. This isn’t just about the funny kooky sister, there’s love. The whole reason why she’s freaking out in those first episodes is ‘cos she loves her; and when [Tracey] leaves Cynthia questions [herself] ‘what do you want; where do you see yourself? [Her answer is] ‘I see me, (Tracey) and mum sitting around and we’re really old.’ It’s exciting to play someone whose options in life is only A, B and C. It’s sort of freeing; a very simple life.  Me and Michaela always said we’re never going to let the comedy overpower the truth that Cynthia loves Tracey and her mum. That’s what Michaela really wanted people to say, ‘God they love each other, they all really love each other’.

Michaela and Susan have worked with and known each other for some time prior to Chewing Gum, Susan opens up about their history…

Susan Wokoma as Tanika (left) and Michaela Cole as Tiana in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh (The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre until 16 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan

Susan Wokoma as Tanika (left) and Michaela Cole as Tiana in Three Birdss by Janice Okoh The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre Photo – Jonathan Keenan

I did a play with Michaela in 2013 called Three Birds at The Royal Exchange Manchester so we knew each other then. But I didn’t know anything about Michaela then, about this side of her. She’s very focused and… not quiet, because Michaela’s never quiet! When this all started happening with Chewing Gum, Cynthia’ didn’t exist in the one-woman show. I think we were both working at the National at the time and she sent me a message saying ‘I know you’re really busy but I’m gonna write the sister character and I want to you audition for it.’ I didn’t know that she was pushing for me to be in the show, she would never put that sort of pressure on me. So I went in and auditioned like everyone else and then within a few weeks I’d got it… that doesn’t happen normally. Then it was months of me and Michaela talking about character and her going, ‘this is what I saw when you were doing Three Birds, this is what I know you can do’.

Littered with references to race and perceived racial differences Chewing Gum depicts a particular kind of life on the housing estate which is inventive yet familiar; generous yet sometimes harrowing. How does the show manage racial references without it becoming, well… racist?

Anyone, whether it’s a woman; a black woman, anyone who is oppressed… there is empathy and there’s understanding of being the ‘other’, Michaela is not capable, because of her experience in her life, to write something that’s just racist. Inherently, when you know what it’s like to experience oppression, racism, sexism, and you are somebody dealing with writing people, you just know the difference between people that are racist and when people are just saying crazy shit and it’s funny! That’s why the white characters gel because they understand the common connections between each other.

Susan expands on her career trajectory…

In terms of acting it was always people telling me ‘you’re quite good at this’. It never came from me because I never knew black people could do it… It wasn’t until I was about ten years old, my friends took me to a performance of Bugsy Malone in the west end and it was at that point, seeing black kids [performing], that’s what changed. It was from there that I started doing little drama classes and [getting] into the National Youth Theatre that people were saying you should take this seriously. When I was doing it I’d feel good and I would think this is easy – people get paid for this?!

What’s with creative arts and its reputation as an unworthy career with some families? Perhaps it’s about what Susan goes on to explain. Since there are insufficient references to support the notion that a sustainable life can be made from the arts it doesn’t stand a chance against being a doctor or a teacher or any other of the ‘high-brow’ professions so well regarded by African Caribbean families…

The battle of course, was telling my Dad; that was difficult. My parents didn’t understand. Rather than just going ‘no we want you to become a doctor’, they didn’t understand the world they couldn’t guide me in. So, when I said I was going to be an actor all they heard was ‘you’re going to go off into this world where we can’t protect and advise you’… I think that’s very much to do with Britain. They know there are actors and that there are Nigerian actors because it[Nigeria] has its own film industry, but to see people succeed who were like us, here…

One of the most cruellest, but the most amazing thing he [Dad] did, when I picked Drama GCSE… he called me into his room and handed me the [TV] remote control and told me to flick through all the channels; so I did and he said ‘where’s all the black people?’ that’s all he did. It made me feel sort of young. I thought well I’m going to be the first, I’ll show you Dad. That was a really, really good lesson to learn. It’s going to be a lot harder for me and even when you achieve a certain level of success it will still be hard. I find that now there is still a certain amount of negotiation and convincing that you still have to do even though you’ve got the CV to back up that you can do it. So I do remember that moment a lot.

(l-r) Ronald (John MacMillan), Joy (Shola Adewusi), Cynthia (Susan Wokoma). Chewing Gum Copyright: Retort

(l-r) Ronald (John MacMillan), Joy (Shola Adewusi), Cynthia (Susan Wokoma).
Chewing Gum
Copyright: Retort

 

Central to the lives of Tracey and Cynthia is religion. Religion as practiced by their mother Joy played by Shola Adewusi, is the proverbial ‘brimstone and fire’; the blistering, unwavering belief in dogma mainly found in the Old Testament which seemingly straight-jackets black women. Christianity is quite potent throughout the series, which propels one sister away from its authority, whilst the other scurries deeper into its folds…

I was shocked by how much Christianity. I thought they would try and water it out and thought that would be a shame. But then I saw the script… It’s not saying Christianity is bad, what I think it’s saying very specifically about black women, is you being at war with who you should be in the world; who you should be in our black community. Cynthia is the most potent example of that in the show because she does believe in God, that’s all she knows, it’s a real comfort, it gives her life clarity and meaning and it makes her happy. But I do feel; being very specific about black women…we’re so sanctioned. Everyone has an idea about how we should behave and it isn’t just society at large, but in our community. We have ‘you should look like this, you should behave like this, black women don’t behave like this, black women don’t do these sorts of things’. I think ultimately what Michaela is trying to say with religion is, life, love, sex isn’t separate, it isn’t some bad thing that opposes religion. I think that black women are very policed by everyone including religion and the church, absolutely. I remember having a conversation with another actress who was in EastEnders who was playing a lesbian character and she talked about the comments she would get on the street from black people [saying] ‘you’re an embarrassment, how can you do that, it’s embarrassing to your community’.

Gender’s role has its part even here Susan expands and demonstrates its double standards…

There’s another actor who played a gay character in another soap and I asked him did you experience that and he said ‘a bit – but not that much’. So I do feel that things are hard for black people, but it’s always worse for black women, we’re policed. I think what Michaela wants to do is to hear words come out of black women’s mouths that we don’t normally hear. We’ve seen films and plays about women and about God, but we pretend like black women behave like this [straight-laced]. It’s just about starting the conversation. I think that particularly when it comes to the family in the show it becomes a restriction.

Precisely, we can talk about God and we can talk about sex, husbands, boyfriends, partners; we can talk about periods without feeling shame and in terms of religion it has stifled the family – especially her mother. We see women like Tracey & Cynthia’s mother every day, Susan continues hesitantly…

So much freedom is afforded to men that isn’t to women and I think that’s not right. That’s me personally. What it does is start a circle of guilt.  So you’re there and you believe this and if you have any kind of thought, feeling for desire, it’s bad so you’re internally making yourself feel guilty. It’s that cultural guilt that keeps you down. Rather than going let’s discuss, let’s explore if you’re constantly [thinking] these are things I shouldn’t be doing…

We recall a scene where Cynthia borrows Tracey’s laptop. Oh what a device of delicious iniquity! As she begins to browse, Cynthia does not realise she’s participating in what appears to be a snuff-movie – as an online call girl. Most troubling to Cynthia is that she is turned on by what she’s doing and taking pleasure in the effect she’s having on the half-naked man she can see on the laptop’s screen. Susan explains how this motivates the character’s subsequent actions…

That’s why she’s like ‘rah, I better go and get married’ in order to facilitate these feelings! I can only have these desires once I’m married, so I’ve got to find the nearest… [Susan points around the cafe] …him [in Chewing Gum’s case Ronald played by John MacMillan]! Cynthia is also looking at her sister and saying, ‘she’s leaving me, she’s leaving the family, I’m panicking, I’ve got to find my new family unit.’ Michaela’s writing series two. We aim for it to be out winter of this year. We’ll see what Michaela cooks up, but we’ll see a lot more of Cynthia.

So what about how navigating the industry and challenges within it?

Susan Wokoma as Beneath Younger in Eclipse Theatre's A Raisin in the Sun

Susan Wokoma as Beneath Younger in Eclipse Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun

The industry has been fair to me. Whenever I get angry at things I remember that ever since leaving drama school I’ve only ever been completely unemployed for 3 months. For someone who is not a size 6, who is not light-skinned or white, that’s strange to be employed that much. So I realise that I’ve been given that much [and worked hard for] lots of opportunities. Ultimately it is a problem particularly for black women. We have this whole mass exodus going to the States; I’ve been to the States, I’ve done a couple of plays in New York and a lot of the black women don’t look like me. I think a lot of the success that we talk about – which is all well and good, are men.

Statistically she’s right. We can roll off our tongues British AfriCarib men who are at the top of the Hollywood food chain more so than our women…

Marianne Jean-Baptiste whom I’ve loved, she doesn’t like have a project like Selma under her belt and she’s a fine, brilliant actress. She’s always the person that we bring up because she was the first. But she’s been there for ages, so what’s going on with her? These are conversations that I have with Michaela and all my other girlfriends in the industry and it’s a bit different for us. I always think ‘why?’  Ultimately women black, white whatever, are always judged – not just in our industry; life. Some of the characters I go up for, being attractive has got nothing to do with it. Then you see the person that gets the role, you think why? Is she some sort of model?  In television and film that always comes into it and the reason why it affects us so much is because the ideals of beauty aren’t dark. Unless it’s a dark skin that we can relate to like Lupita Nyong’o, because we’ve had Grace Jones, we’ve had that look, they understand it, it’s exotic. As an actress that is something I’ve constantly battled against [they say] ‘she’s great, we think she can act but…would you want to?’ That’s got nothing to do the story, and that’s something I’ve noticed with a lot of the roles I’ve gone for… and when I see who gets them I’m like ‘ahhh’. If you do go for a black girl it’s someone who’s light…”

Susan explains that black production crews don’t give her that burden. She enters a set and doesn’t have to explain her being. It’s not the same experience. She continues…

Those experiences are few and far between. I come into a room and I don’t have to explain my hair, I don’t have to explain what make up I’ve got to use, I don’t have to explain myself … I’m not meaning to wave all the different oppressive flags but it’s different, we understand in a way that men don’t. The way that I respond to that problem in the industry that’s very specific to me is I’ve gone out of my way [to go for a certain look]. With Cynthia I was talking about her aesthetic… dowdy! I don’t get recognised from Chewing Gum. I was out in Florence and Milan with Michaela over the New Year and my birthday and lots of people were like ‘oh my God Chewing Gum!’ Michaela was like; ‘yeah, yeah, this is my sister…’

Susan provides an open-mouthed face to display the incredulity of the Italian onlookers. They can’t believe that the glamour-puss before me – and yes, she is gorgeous, could play such a conservative character…

That is the biggest compliment of my job. I’ve been working with a lovely actor called Aron Julius who’s playing Joseph Asagai and George Murchison in A Raisin in the Sun. We’d been working together for four/five days, we were on the sofa running lines and talking. I mentioned Chewing Gum and he went, ‘Noooo…yooooouuu!?’. For me that’s the joy. Maybe that’s me protecting myself as well and also knowing that I’m not going to be young forever. That’s another thing, I have to go for character acting eventually. That’s what I want to do because it allows you to free up, to play older and younger. I’ve got friends who’ve been placed as those pretty young things and they do brilliant work very quickly then by the time they’re in their mid-twenties they’re too old. Genuinely, I have friends on the phone going ‘I’m too old for this part’. I’m not going to even try that. I’d rather be hot and sexy in my real life! It’s not the objective in my work; story, story, story, character, character.

Since Chewing Gum, Susan returned to the stage…

Right now I’m doing ‘Raisin in the Sun (as Beneath Younger) with the Eclipse Theatre Company run by Dawn Walton. I’ve always wanted to work with Dawn.

Raisin in The Sun also stars Ashley Zhangazha, Angela Wynter, Alisha Bailey, Aron Julius, Mike Burnside and Everal A Walsh. The production is now on tour…

I’m in a TV comedy drama series called Crashing (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) on Channel 4. That was really good fun a very different character to Cynthia [this character is ‘sexier’] … It’s not a large part and I don’t play sexy characters, so it was really fun to do a few episodes! I really love acting and hopefully one day I’m sure I will start writing. I’ve got my really dear friend [teacher turned comedian] Vivienne Acheampong who is a brilliant stand-up comedian we’re gonna put our heads together and create something pretty explosive in the next few years!


Find out more about Eclipse Theatre’s production of Raisin in the Sun
Channel 4’s Crashing airs Monday’s @ 10pm on Channel 4