Jenny Gordon is an artist and filmmaker who has a son called Gabriel Bisset-Smith. She is black and her son is white. Or they are both mixed race? Her son has written a lively play Whitewash about race, skin colour and gentrification. It’s on at the Soho Theatre in London until July 27th. Book here – https://sohotheatre.com/
How did Whitewash evolve?
Basically through situations and conversations my son and I have had over the years revolving aroundrace and the differences of our skin colour. Then, he decided that he wanted to make them into a play that explores mixed raced identity and housing in London.
Could you explain the name – I guess it’s a play on words re London and race, and also something to do with white privilege?
Yeah, it has a few different meaning really, like the word itself. It’s to do with the white privilege of the main character but also the whitewashing of London.
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Were you actually involved before your son wrote it?
It is based on our life and his upbringing so in a way ‘yes’. And he has been involved with my housing situation which has been part of the motivation to write this!
Did he interview you in order to use your experience?
He didn’t have to interview me because we have an on-going dialogue.
How do you feel about being at the centre of this play?
Initially I found it quite stressful as I’m very private about my personal life so it was odd having people think the play is real when it’s just inspired by some real events. But I’m getting use to it now.
And has it affected your relationship with your son, Gabriel?
The whole experience has been really positive for our relationship. We are always very supportive of each other as my son I are very close and we get on really well. I understand what he is doing and it’s been great collaborating with him as I did the painting for the show and he’s a dream to work with.
I noticed you refer to yourself as black and the publicity from the Soho theatre says mixed race?
I refer to myself as black but for the clarity of the story the publicity says mixed race.
How was it being a black mother with a white baby/son/child? In the public arena? And what does that say about us as a society?
When Gabriel was born the first thing I said to the doctor was – ‘Is he going to go darker?’ and the answer was ‘no’. If I hadn’t seen him come out I would have thought they had made a mistake, so it took me a while to bond with him. He was very blond with ringlets and blue eyes and people always thought I was the nanny or minder, and sometimes people would argue with me that he couldn’t be my son.
It became very tiring so I just went with it, which made me take a step back. I didn’t really talk about it – so I would just laugh it off but I think it had aneffect on me.
I’m not sure what it says about society but it madeit much harder if you were different in any way out of the norm. People thought they had a right to comment on it? Nowadays it’s probably more hidden.
Have we improved or gone backwards?
With Trump and the possibility of Boris Johnson becoming a Prime Minister, I feel that these are quite risky times and there is a feeling that we could be going backwards in terms of being a woman andrace.
There’s a lot of focus on white privilege these days? Is that good?
Yes, I think it’s a good thing that white people are made aware of their privilege. It’s been there forever but they are really only becoming aware of it now. And it means people like me have a clearerunderstanding of why we get shut out of opportunities.
How is it a love letter to London?
It celebrates what is great about this city. Clubbing, art, diversity and over the course of 30 years. But it also questions what’s happening to it.
How has your own attitude to race changed?
My attitude to race has changed for the better. It’s so much better for me now than when I wasgrowing up. I had a lot of racial abuse wherever I went. I had to be aware of which places that I couldgo to socialise, where I looked for work and education. Now it’s so much more cosmopolitan with so many more inter-racial relationships. I don’t suffer any open outward racism anymore.
What was it like being a young artist in the 80s and 90s in London? How did you survive?
I lived in Culross Buildings in Kings Cross, which could be a bit edgy, with drug addicts and prostitutes. I had a free studio in the same building as my flat and a communal hall where we would hold celebrations and parties. I would go for meetings with gallery owners and with quite a few of them I had bad experiences. I was invited for meetings on the basis of my paintings. However when they saw me, they kept me waiting for hours and then said my work was too controversial for their gallery. I found this experience to be very disheartening and as a result it made me less confident to promote myself as an artist in the ‘art world’.
I also had a part-time job working in a nursery where my kids went and I used to do a vintage stall down Portabello Road. Soho was my go-to-place for socialising at The French, Colony or Gerry’s.
We created a haven in the Victorian buildings and cobbled streets, which were used as film sets for films like Charlie Chaplin and Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. It was a really great artistic communitywhere you felt safe and protected as everyone looked out for each other.
Overall we could be more creative and less money-dependant. I had great support from family, friends and neighbours. It could be tough but we always had lots of fun and good memories of a London that no longer exists.
One of the themes in the play is social housing and how that is changing? I think you have personal experience of that?
I think social housing is coming to an end. It’s more like social cleansing, which I am experiencing myself at this point in my life. They are trying to re–develop where I am living now. It always starts with small damp issues which are never proven and leads to demolition and an uncertain future.
Is Whitewash also a celebration of London?
Yes but also a battle cry to try and save it!