“To be a woman in a culture that was patriarchal is a revolutionary thing. And to be a black woman is double revolutionary”
Chicago-raised Bonnie Greer is instantly recognisable to UK audiences as a critic, television pundit and political theatre-maker. She famously took on former BNP leader Nick Griffin on BBC's Question Time and has written five books and numerous plays that look at race, class and identity.
Lesser known perhaps is how she came up in 1970s New York, at the time of Basquiat, Warhol and Madonna, before she moved to the UK in the 1980s. She explores these avant-garde beginnings, as well as her far-ranging ideas on age, being a woman of colour and making art, in this episode of The Last Bohemians, recorded in Soho, London.
This episode was produced by Isis Thompson. With thanks to Nina Garthwaite.
TRANSCRIPT: Bonnie Greer
Kate Hutchinson intro: Chicago-raised Bonnie Greer is instantly recognisable to UK audiences as a critic, television pundit and political theatre maker. She famously took on former BNP leader Nick Griffin on BBC's Question Time and has written five books and numerous plays that look at race, class, identity and beyond. Lesser known, perhaps, is how she came up in 1970s New York at the time of Basquiat, Warhol and Madonna before she moved to the UK in the 1980s. She explores these avant garde beginnings, as well as her far-ranging ideas on age, being a woman of colour and making art, in this episode of The Last Bohemians, recorded in Soho, London.
Bonnie Greer: I was born and raised in Chicago. I think when I was seven, maybe I'll make it 10, my mother would bring home the groceries, the shop, and they had paper bags in those days. I would unload her groceries – I'm the oldest of seven children, so I was the one, in, you know, traditional family, helping mummy, so I unloaded everything. And then after I unloaded it, um, I would tear the bag open and I would draw on it and make little stories and stuff. And, um, and when I got into primary school, my catholic school, I wrote all the school plays, and um, I knew that that was my life. [Long pause].
Bonnie: New York came into my consciousness, I would say, uh, when I was about 19, we're talking about the end of the 60s now. And New York was, well, America was in recession, so New York's images were like, um, the French connection New York, you know just kind of burned out, burned down, you know garbage, dilapidated buildings. I thought, “Oh god, this looks wonderful!”. Because I grew up, you know, in the suburbs, suburban Chicago, the South side, not far from Michelle Obama's neighbourhood, so we had the same kind of very sheltered African-American upbringing. It was very, you know, church-orientated, very lawns, you know, porches, you know you did certain things a certain way, blah, blah, blah. And so New York was the opposite of all that, it looked to me anyway. So I would say consciously it came to me maybe about 1970, 71. And I was in the anti-war movement, the student union movement, so we were going to go to Washington to protest and then I kind of snuck up to New York with a friend of mine and we saw a play. And it was this incredible other world of possibilities. It was also a place that felt like you could make your own work, you could do your own stuff, and also you could be anonymous if you wanted to be. Because for me and the people I hung out with, it was very important if something was coming towards you like fame or money you made sure you were going the other way, because you lost your credibility or you lost your purpose if they found you. So in other words, if you got too many awards, too many scholarships, too much in the paper, that was like bad, bad stuff.
Kate Hutchinson: But you mentioned the people you were hanging around with in New York – who was in your circle?
Bonnie: I didn't have a circle. That was one of the things that really was part of what I was. I didn't have one, I didn't go out with... I mean I guess if I look back on it now maybe there was one but I was consciously cultivating one. I was just trying to do my work and trying to keep body and soul together, because it was quite hard, there wasn't a lot of money, so it was quite hard to do that. But I didn't have a circle. But, because I was making theatre in the Lower East Side, in the what they used to call, maybe they still call the East Village, and my people I was making theatre with were part of a whole kind of movement, like The Living Theatre, they were doing things at Judson Memorial, at the same time there was the whole sort of second wave of people who were painters and photographers, choreographers, fashion people. Everybody was so coming together to make theatre. You could be in a room and it was Basquiat, before he was Basquiat or Keith Haring who was making art from graffiti, people were drawing stuff on the subways, that was the first time they'd actually ever done that. I went to the Garage a lot, it used to be called Paradise Garage. Grace Jones was there a lot. I was there for her baby shower, like, a thousand years ago. And it was mainly about breaking down, not breaking down barriers because no one really cared about any of that, I think it was about... Cos if you break down a barrier you're breaking down a barrier to enter in, and then you have to ask, ‘What are you entering’? So it was mainly about expression.
Kate: I'm just imagining a young Bonnie in New York immersed in this really avant garde scene of really incredible artists and thinkers, and thinking, "How do I find what I'm going to say?"
Bonnie: You know, I knew that I was the same as them. I was part of it. I mean they were nobody until later when you read about them in the books, in the history books, and you see films made about them, but they weren't anybody, they were the same as me. And I went to my teachers, I knew who my teachers were, and so I went to them. But I was looking for an environment, I was looking for an environment in which I could thrive and do my work, and that was New York, the Lower East Side, and that was the Village.
Kate: Did you feel like you fitted in back then?
Bonnie: I didn't think about fitting in, I thought about just being there. On any given day I could be at the Actors Studio where I was in the playwright director's unit, so Elia Kazan was still alive, Joe Mankiewicz was still alive, Arthur Penn was still alive, all these kind of classic film directors and TV directors who were teaching. I could be there in the afternoon, say between four and six, and then spend the night, spend part of the night downtown with Mabou Mines who were doing what we now call performance art, avant garde theatre. And then I could also be uptown Harlem working at a black theatre there and doing stuff there. I wanted to have all those experiences, you know, I wanted to do all of that. So I wouldn't say I fitted in, I think probably now when you say that I'm thinking I didn't want to fit in. So it was always an idea being a little bit outside. I wasn't quite in any of those things. I mean people recognise my face and my work but I wasn't quite a part of anything. My generation we were the second wave of feminism, so we were very much focussed on trying to express ourselves as women. And also knowing that doing that was kind of a revolutionary act. You know, to really want to be a woman in a culture that was patriarchal is a revolutionary thing. And I mean to want to be a black woman is double revolutionary. So for me it was like trying to be a person of African descent, that was very important, at the same time not getting caught up in the Black Power movement, because that was political, even though I've been it and moved out of that. And find a way to express myself, so I was looking at – you know there was that whole kind of idea of not being bound by things, which is why Madonna was such a shock, because nobody wanted to be famous, even though if it happened it happened. But nobody was nakedly pursuing it as an activity of legitimacy but her.
Kate: Where did you first see Madonna?
Bonnie: She used to go to a club called Danceteria. And her boyfriend was spinning the records. I was there once or twice. I liked going out to gay men's clubs that let women in, cos you know you didn't have to worry about, or even unconsciously think, "Oh I have to look this way because I'm in this room with men and I wanna look this way". But these guys, you know, they weren't even looking at you anyway, so you could do anything you wanted. So I guess I once or twice to Danceteria and she used to wear this sort of, like, horizontal-striped tube dress and she would dance in front of the DJ. You know there was no, the space was empty, and she would be like doing her moves in front of the DJ, and you just thought who is this person? Cos it was just so lame. Now that I look back 30 years in hindsight, Madonna was the beginning of the 80s, Madonna was the beginning of the pursuit of fame in a kind of open way. And we weren't like that, we were kind of more artistic, hippie whatever. And she was more like, "I wanna be famous. I wanna be famous. I wanna be famous". And it was that naked pursuit of fame that I think, and visibility that I think was the 80s.
Kate: Why did you leave New York?
Bonnie: Ah, there was too much money there. Um... It was becoming um, impossible to actually do the work that you had to do, because you had to make money to do it. The theatres were being defunded... I mean when I came to New York in 1978 which actually was the end of the whole thing that I was looking for although I didn't know it, you could just have a theatre group in the basement of somebody's shop and it didn't cost anything, they didn't care! But now by 1986 you had to pay for all that, and so it made it a different kind of theatre. What began to happen was directors began to be on the ascendant and then stars, you had to make vehicles. Because it's the only way to keep the lights on, and I respect that because that's business, but it changes everything, you know it changes risk, and the theatre that I made and I make is risky theatre.
Kate: What's your definition of risky?
Bonnie: Ah, I think risk is... taking an audience, well as in the theatre, taking an audience where they don't wanna go. Most audiences want to be comfortable. If you don't make them comfortable you pay, you pay. You can think you're doing something really dangerous but if you put it within the receptacle of what people understand you aren't doing that. So partly me going to New York was to find the danger, was to find the edge of my danger, was to find if I could make some work out of that. And I guess in a way I didn't care if there was an audience for it, although you actually should care if you're making theatre or film! You kinda should care. But I didn't, because I didn't and I still don't know what people, well... I was gonna say what people want. I don't care what they want. I guess that's what I would say. I like being a foreigner. I mean people don't know what I mean by that but I like not knowing stuff. I still don't get British humour and I mean I could if I paid attention and concentrate, but I thought, ‘why should I’? Because I'm not from Britain. That's one of the attractions of Britain. I'm not from Britain. And so I'm constantly, you know, I held onto my accent and everything because I thought, well, I just want to be in situations where I'm a stranger. You know, what, what can I learn from being sort of plopped into something? So someone tweeted me something today that I didn't understand what it was. And so I tweeted it back to people and they were explaining it to me. But I think in a way, I think they find it interesting that I've been here for half my life, 30 years, and there's stuff I don't get.
Kate: How did you come to move to London?
Bonnie: I had written a play called Desdemona She Is Black. And I had three black women and myself we played Desdemona in Othello, we played it as ourselves. So we had like this, we played in within a boxing ring. So we set up this boxing ring and we were having this interrogation with Othello as Desdemona if she had been a black woman. So we did the Edinburgh Festival, and then, oh, I knew some women, feminist theatre-makers, and I came down to London and I stayed with them, and then I moved to another space in what they used to call the People's Republic of Islington, which I didn't know what that was [laughing]. And I lived there and I was on the theatre trajectory in that sense, I was moving from house to house, sleeping on couch – couch surfing, couch surfing, couch surfing. And I've done so much couch surfing I actually still sleep on a couch, cos it's the most comfortable thing for me is to sleep on couches.
Kate: I'm really interested in what it was like coming to London in 1986 and making theatre at a time when minorities weren't represented really very much in TV, in film, on stage. I mean how did you manage to equip yourself with what you needed to make it?
Bonnie: I think in a way I was allowed to do some things at the beginning. Because I was American and of course I was walking into a Britain that was coming out of uprisings, 1980, 81, people had different backgrounds than me, so there were certain things that I couldn't hit on because I didn't have the background, if that makes any sense. I couldn't critique anything that was particular to this country because I wasn't from this country. So I could make art about things and I could do my work, and it took me a while to realise that part of the permission I was given was because I wasn't hitting those buttons for the establishment. I, you know, and it's still true of African Americans in this country and in Europe, and still true African American work is used, and it's not conscious, but it's used as a way of running away or not having to deal with [it]. If you think about a lot of the work that's produced in the theatre still comes from Black America, because our work is not about here. And so for a while I was the person who they promoted because they didn't have to engage with me, and then I got, I figured it out, and then that's when it turned. I started to get push back from critics, and I didn't get a lot of work after that, when I began to figure out, ‘oh, oh, oh!’ [laughing].
Bonnie: And, you know, especially when I started wanting to tell more stories from my point of view about this country there were a lot of Black British dramatists coming on stream, actors, directors. So that was the good part of it, but the bad part of it was I realised African American work is used as a way of running away or not having to deal with. Cos this country is extremely complex. I did write a big play that um, in 1990, that got a prize, it was set in Ireland, in Northern Ireland because I had been there on a film shoot and I was really moved by it. I was then told that it's not going to be produced even though it won all the prizes, I said, "Why?!" Ot was because there were Irish writers. And so what was I bringing to this table, even though they gave me a prize for it? And you know you, you have to absorb all that in yourself, and think, well, "I have something to say! Do I have to be Irish to say it?". Well, then you did. And maybe you still do. Maybe you do have to be Black British to write about growing up in Brixton, maybe you do, maybe that's ok. And I like writing work about that contradiction. But for people in my generation who are Black British, they were beaten over the head by African-America, by this culture, and so I still have to tread quite carefully, and that I've gotten over being upset about, but I was.
Kate: Do you feel held to make work about race?
Bonnie: No. But I like doing it because, and I don't, I make work about the contradictions in human beings. We're all one species so I find it very amusing that people wanna talk about colour because it doesn't mean anything. But the fact that people think it means something is the stuff for the work. You know. And the fact that people have lived their lives thinking it means something is the stuff for the work.
Bonnie: I think you always have to go where you're afraid, because it's the only place where you're going to be able to break down all the pieces of yourself. Because if you don't, if you don't do that, there's no point. You know, I mean in a way, it's like... all the stuff that I hate, or I have a revulsion to, I want to understand why I do. Because we're not born like that. It's like when I went to do the Picasso, do the Picasso thing at the Tate, and a lot of young women, my millennial friends were going, "I can't even go in that room, I mean how could you, I mean he was like the sexual predator, I can't even go see the work". I said, "Yeah he was, he was all of those things. But he was a genius too". So what you have to do is go in that room and encounter your own resistance, your own repulsion, your own fear, your own anger, your own rage, and as you go in there you have to interrogate yourself as to where it comes from. Because I will put money on the fact that 80% of it has been built into you. So if you can encounter those junctures, then in the middle of that is your work and yourself, I think.
Bonnie: I did a Question Time 10 years ago, and I was invited on with this man called Nick Griffin who was head of the British National Party. Now I didn't know anything about him... I lost friends over doing this. Because I had no idea that he was no platform, that people on the left didn't go, you know, I had no idea but I thought, well, if he's not allowed to speak, and he's an elected official and he's head of a political party, he's not just a rabble rouser, he's got people following him. If he's not allowed to speak, how are we gonna hear that he's wrong? And if I'm, if I'm not part of that process what has it all been about for me? I decided to do it because I'd gone on his website, the British National Party, and ah, because I think other people had turned it down. And I got onto the British National Party website and it said white people were indigenous Brits. And I thought what does that mean? So I was on the board of the British Museum at the time and I went to the Pre-History department, which we used to call Prehistoric, and I said, "What's an indigenous Brit?", and they said there was the great ice age which wiped out all of life, including anything that was human. So nobody's indigenous anything, everybody's a migrant! Everybody! Everybody! So I wanted to say that, and that's why I went on the show, I thought it was really important to say. Let me tell you something about the run up to this thing, cos I've never told this to anybody. I never give my phone number out anymore, because of this show. This was 10 years ago. I had people calling me, I had people calling me up on the, there were newspaper stories, 'Bonnie Greer is going to regret moving here after', you know, blah blah blah.
Bonnie: The day of the show, maybe five hours, three, four hours before, I started getting these heart palpitations which I had never had before, and I called the ambulance, which I had never done before. And this guy came upstairs and they did the - and he knew who I was, he knew I was going on this show, that was so weird! And he put me into the ambulance and, ah, said, "I think you're ok, I think you're just anxious", he said, "But you have to do this show". I said, "Did you know I'm doing this show?", and he said yes. He put me in the front of the queue when we got to the emergency room. I lay on the table. This junior doctor came in, and she said, "Well we're gonna put you in overnight". I said, "I gotta go. I got to do this show", and she said, "No you don't, you have to go inside. We're gonna keep you overnight". I said, "I can't, I can't, I can't". So she called her, her, the consultant, and he came over and he said, "You can do it, you're ok". And I had a whole outfit laid out, make up, I thought I'm gonna wear exactly the clothes I wore in the hospital. I'm not changing nothing. I'm not changing nothing, I'm not putting makeup on I'm not gonna do nothing. I'm gonna go on like this.
Kate: Do you ever doubt yourself, Bonnie?
Bonnie: Well, um. That's a good question. [Long pause]. You gotta think about it! [Laughing]. What does that mean, what do you mean? Like, that I shouldn't do something, or that I'm doing something wrong, or that I made a mistake? Or, what? [Long pause]. I've made mistakes, now that's a different thing. I've done something that was a mistake, I've made mistakes, I've done stuff.
Kate: What mistakes have you made?
Bonnie: I've misjudged people. I've misread people... I was in situations that I didn't understand and I was in them, and so I did them, I, I, I did the wrong thing... But I don't think that I'm on the wrong path. I guess that's what a doubt is to me. A doubt is if you think you're on the wrong trajectory, and I don't think I am. So I don't doubt myself, although I've made mistakes aplenty. But I know that I'm on the right path.
Kate: Did you have to fight to get the respect ever?
Bonnie: I’m still fighting, how can I say... You make your own destiny, because there isn't one for you. Particularly if you're in the west. You know, particularly if you are a black person, an African in the west, and you're not in any of the home countries, you're in the west. There isn't a career for you, so you have to constantly make your own stuff. You have to be up for making your own stuff, and you have to be happy about making your own stuff, and you have to be brave about making your own stuff. And also knowing that maybe your own stuff is not gonna benefit you but maybe the people behind you, and maybe it will honour the people ahead of you who are dead, because there are a lot of people who have done stuff and they're just starting to be resurrected. So it's a long game… I'm very conscious and it's my generation of being a person of African descent. Very much blackness, all that, is very important in me. And I'm very conscious of the arc of history, and knowing that, you know, my life is something my ancestors couldn't have dreamt of me being in Soho being interviewed with this beautiful Isis and you. You know they couldn't ever have imagined it. That wasn't in their purview. And so I have to think about them all the time. You know while they're cutting the cane and being slaves and everything, thinking, you know, "my descendent is gonna be sitting here being interviewed", you know, they couldn't. So I have to honour them because that wasn't that long ago. That was very recent in the history of the human race. So, um... I think - and this is just me, it's personal, I wouldn't put this on anybody else - but to me, to be a black woman is to relish being outside, to make your things outside, to bring people outside to see your things. Um, to make your, um, edifices outside. And to bring people outside. It doesn't make any sense to me being a black woman being inside, it makes no sense to me at all. And I'm not, again, I'm not judging any women who are, I'm not judging anybody, I'm just saying to me, it doesn't make any sense. Why should I do that?
Kate: As a, as a pundit, as somebody who's on boards, do you ever get tired of representing? Of feeling like you have to represent?
Bonnie: I'm me. So I don't represent anybody or anything. I'm very careful about that. It's very important to say that, let people understand that. Mainly because I am foreign to this country, so I'm not gonna sit there and pretend to be talking for all black people in this country, that's absurd. And anybody who would do that, even if you're born here, should never ever walk into that trap. If they don't accept me as myself talking then, you know, they don't. If they want a black representative they should do somebody who plays that. There are plenty of people who play that role, and they do very well, but it's not me. I'm there because I got, you know, hopefully, I mean I've quit a lot of boards too, because there's just a point where you think, “This is just pointless”. And I'm there for a number, I'm there for whatever, and I'm not getting nothing out of it. I'm not even getting a laugh out of this... If you can't go and laugh somewhere it's definitely not worth it! It's not even funny. So, I've left a lot of boards, I think I have a big history of walking off these things.
Kate: How do you feel about getting older?
Bonnie: I am very excited about it. I mean, my mother lived to be 90. So hopefully I will get to be 90, I hope I do. I think I get, I get more relaxed, I feel more confident in myself and with myself. I don't take any more bullshit, much less. You've heard things already, you know people start talking, especially when you go, I don't go to lectures but if I go to one, someone stands up and I'm thinking, "I've heard this before. Why is this like being said again?". But you know, so you get to the point where you're hearing stuff over and over again.
Kate: Doesn't that get frustrating?
Bonnie: I'm very fascinated as to why we are. And see I think it's a racket, this is my thing, as I'm sitting here talking to you I'm thinking, this is a scam. Because it's a scam to get either money or prestige or attention. This stuff has all been done! So why is this all being pushed as if it's new, they'd never thought of it before. Like everybody screamed about Ta-Nehisi Coates in America, this lovely essayist. "You gotta read him!", they say - I'm sounding like Trump now, "You gotta read him, you gotta read him, you gotta read him!". So I read him and I'm thinking, "That's James, that's James Baldwin!". And he's shorter as well. Why's it, I mean the people who've crowned Ta-Nehisi know that that's James Baldwin too! They know. I'm thinking, “What's going on here?”.
Kate: I guess every generation needs their heroes.
Bonnie. Hmm, no! I think what you need is, um, do it but don't act as if it didn't happen before, see that's my beef. Everybody's got a new take on something, but don't say it's new because nothing is new. Nothing. Expect your own life. Your own life hasn't happened before, so that's new.
Kate: Speaking of new, how do you feel about the future?
Bonnie: The world or mine?
Bonnie: I'm very confident. I love science, I love the fact that, I love this new generation, I love the fact that hopefully I'll live long enough to see the world become like my, my family. We've got Jewish people, we've got Latinos, we've got Black Americans, we have all these little rainbow children, and I'm really confident and happy about that. And I feel, um, I'm an optimist, I'm not a pessimistic person, I don't have a pessimistic bone in my body. If somebody tells me they can do something I'll say, “Great. I believe you. So do it”.
Kate: We are living through quite turbulent times, though.
Bonnie: But we've been there before.
Kate: Even though we've been there before, how do young artists find their way through that, or young people in general?
Bonnie: First of all, don't be afraid to educate yourself. And read people you don't agree with, see that's the most important thing. I read, I mean I've read a lot of stuff, I read a lot of stuff by people I don't like as people. I don't like them. I don't want to read, I don't like them, and I don't agree with them either. Because that's how you develop your own thing. You have to have grit, you have to have push, if you're reading everybody agrees with you. That's what's wrong with social media, if it's everybody saying the same thing and I'm only gonna hang out with the people who agree with me or who I'm like, then you're not gonna find tools of survival, you're just not gonna find them. And we all have to know how to survive, um, and, um, understanding there is a system. And you can't not be a part of the system, see that's something I have a problem with, people who say, "I'm not in the system". If you have clothes on you're in the system.
Kate: How do we get out of the system?
Bonnie: Constantly interrogating yourself, interrogating what you like – why do you like it? And I have been a university chancellor, and you know, it's very complicated because people don't want certain things to happen. But I don't think you go to university to be safe, I don't think you become an artist to be safe. I don't think you're a musician to be safe, I don't think you're a designer to be safe, I don't think you're anything to be safe. I don't know what you, I don't know what anybody is who wants to be safe. That's not life to me. That's not what life is.
Isis Thompson: This episode was produced by me, Isis Thompson, and you can listen to the rest of The Last Bohemians on iTunes, Spotify, Audio Boom, and all the usual platforms. And check out the portrait series at thelastbohemians.co.uk