I had the lovely opportunity to interview the gifted and multi-hyphenated Cheryl May Coward-Walker. Our conversation was delightful, Cheryl is a graceful, yet enthusiastic conversationalist. We talked about her play The Wedding Speech and its upcoming run, mother-daughter relationships and their many different forms, identity, being an independent artist and the healing journey.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your creative practice?
I’m a writer – I come from an acting background, but became a mother, and acting became a little bit harder to do so I got into writing. Writing allowed me to express how I was feeling, it allows for nuance. I [also] went down the employment route of staff and production, but I got fed up with the work-place politics, the gaslighting and plausible deniability. Writing was a way to channel those feelings, and I like having art as a means to express my truth. It’s much easier this way. Like many people in the industry I ended up having to learn new skills, like producing, so I began producing my own work, and then other people’s. Which is sort of how I got into Purple Moon [Drama]. I am very much an independent artist and I treasure the freedom of it.
What inspired you to write this play, in this format as a solo show?
So, originally the play started off as a 20-minute commissioned piece by Paines Plough, it was for their “Come To Where I am From” series. Then came the opportunity to make it into a full-length piece, for VAULT [Festival] years ago. Over time it’s been refined. It became clear that what people were interested in was this mother-daughter relationship. The original script had a lot in there about identity, about immigrant families, blackness and the diaspora. So, I had to be kind of ruthless with cutting things, and what’s come out of it is this toxic mother-daughter relationship. It looks at a lot of different things, like parentification, infantilization, co-dependency. Originally, I thought it was a very Caribbean experience, but I’ve had people from West African heritage come up to me and say they resonate with the piece…
Your previous comments about the show hint at you eschewing the standard portrayal of mother-daughter relationships in the media, why was it important for you to show a more nuanced, multi-faceted relationship?
In the play there are a lot of 90’s references, I grew up with a lot of 90’s shows like Dawson Creek and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I often felt excluded by these shows, not just because they didn’t look like me but also because they never showed any testy relationships between the mother and daughter. The mums were always apron-wearing-dinner-is-on-the-table-at-5pm types. That didn’t reflect me. There’s lots of different types of shows now with more nuance and representations and I am happy about it. But I wanted to show things about holding parents accountable.
I have heard the play is very funny. What is the role of humour when exploring topics that can bring quite heavy emotions with them?
I have to have humour! In a piece like this where you are dealing with such heavy emotions humour is important. It’s a case where if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. And, I don’t know what it is, but I find that people who come from cultures, who have gone through a lot are just funny. In the same way that they own their [trauma] they own their humour and do it well.
Talk to me a bit about your experience of motherhood, and has it had a hand in shaping the play at all?
In terms of the character, I don’t know how the character resolves [the tension]. For me, I am determined to be a cycle breaker. But, I also acknowledge that my mum has given me lots of good things that have shaped me into the person I am. I think it’s about being able to pick and choose, what works and doesn’t work and what to leave the door open for.
The play has helped me process thoughts and feelings about the mum I want to be. I think it’s about having compassion and grace for your parents, you can unpack things. I think I am a lot more intentional about what I want to pass on to my children…I still want to give them culture and tradition, but I’m also quick to apologise if I’ve got something wrong. It’s about not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Healing and reconciliation seem to be big themes in the play. What does healing look like for you?
The healing journey is a pivotal part of my journey as a human, an artist, and a mother. At the start you think you do this thing and then you’re healed. It’s a bit like going to the gym, you don’t go once and then you’re fit – it’s a practice. The more you learn, the more there is, there is always more of you to know. And you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes, I cringe at the mindset I had three years ago, but that’s not helpful. I think healing is about empowerment, and so much can be found. You have to be willing to take the risk and be okay with yourself doing it.
What would you say to an emerging artist, struggling to find their voice, and looking for platforms to get out there?
Find your communities and look out for organisations like Purple Moon Drama, there are loads and loads of opportunities out there. Remember it’s a luxury to be able to be an artist, so you need support. If you’re an artist, declare it. I think sometimes it’s an identity issue. But you’re an artist, because you make art. If that’s who you are, say that, and you can say it legitimately. Some folks are uncomfortable with [saying it], because identity counts for so much these days, but they shouldn’t be. In terms of places to go to platform yourself. There are scratch nights, open mics, and other places you can go to improve your confidence and get your name out there. But also, it takes money. Start working on a funding bid, build your community and support network and do it.
What do you want, if anything, people to leave the play with: a feeling, thought, resolve?
It’s a tragic comedy, it’s supposed to irk people. I want the audience to think I need to be intentional. I want the audience to see that they can make a new choice. There are a lot of things in the show that the audience can see, that Rose can’t see about herself. They may think, ‘I’m not sure if your intentions are pure’. I am hoping that the audience will take this away and be a little bit more introspective about themselves and their own choices. Maybe make some new ones.
The Wedding Speech can be seen as part of Vault Festival 2023, from Tuesday 21st – Friday 24th February. Tickets can be bought here. It will also have a limited run at Soho Theatre March 1st and 2nd 2023.