Jessica Mensah

Photo by Lady-Pearl (film director)

Jessica is a Theatre Director, from London. In 2019, she graduated with a BA in Theatre & Performance from the University of Surrey, Guildford School of Acting. She is currently on Stonecrabs Theatres Young Directors Training Programme, the Chair for Purple Moon Drama’s Digital Youth Board and a Trustee for Metroland Culture. Jessica has directed work for companies such as RADA, the National e Theatre, Theatre503 and Omnibus Theatre. She did an RTYDS Three-Month Placement with tiata fahodzi as part of the artistic director’s leadership programme, where she worked as an assistant director on Typical by Ryan Calais-Cameron, directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and worked as an assistant producer to the Artistic Director Natalie Ibu on the festival tiata delights 2019, at Watford Palace Theatre.

She spent a year-long placement in the creative learning department of the Kiln theatre. This led to opportunities where she interviewed Daniel Kaluuya and trained on the Young Vic’s Introduction to Directing Course and Battersea Art Centre’s Young Producer’s Programme. Jessica was also an assistant director on Queens of Sheba written by Jessica L. Hagan in 2018 and has written a monologue called Akosua in her room, published in the ‘Power of One Stories from lockdown’ audio book, compiled by Lita Doolan, 2020.

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Essential Drama


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PC: What is theatre? 

JM: Theatre is a place where you can have a conversation about the world, understand the people within it and discover new histories. It is not just something that entertains but it is something that can change or enlighten people’s perceptions on a subject, or it simply can be a place to share a story. 

PC: How has your idea of theatre changed since your first encounter with the theatre? 

JM: My first encounter with theatre would be through my school trips, as I did not get to go to the theatre with my family when I was younger. I would usually just write my own plays and perform them at home with my siblings and then present them to my family at Christmas time. Theatre back then for me was more of a hobby at home. But there was one theatre school trip I went to at Kiln Theatre (called Tricycle Theatre at the time) and I went to see The House that Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley. From what I remember it was based in New Orleans and looked at a time where free people of colour, but specifically Black women in this play, were prospering. It follows the story of the main character Beatrice who is married to a rich white man who dies, and how this affects the relationship between her daughters at home and the racial tensions taking place in the society they live in. It was a play that I really did enjoy as it was something I had never seen before and a history I never knew about.  

I think it was one of the first productions where I had seen Black women on stage and portrayed in that way, and I felt like I could really connect with the characters. I remember leaving the theatre feeling emotional and entertained by the story, but it also sparked a reminder in me as to why I love theatre because of stories like these and I wanted to create more. I tend to be drawn to productions like this, if it is historical, represents me or is socio-political in some way.  

Progressing into my education, I knew I wanted to study theatre because it makes me happy, but I was not aware that I could make a career out of it. But from studying theatre at A level, to university and working within the industry I started to learn that I can use theatre to do something and to make a change. So, I’ve gone from younger me who saw theatre as just fun and liked acting to realising I can do something with theatre. It can make a difference. So now, when I look at a play the first thing I ask is ‘What is the play or story doing’ and ‘how is it doing it?’

PC: What is the difference between doing and telling? 

JM: There are two plays that I think about in relation to this question which are Queens of Sheba by Jessica L. Hagan and The Great Wave by Francis Turnly. I would say Queens of Sheba was empowering Black women as it was deliberately made for Black females and it wanted to explore their experiences amongst a British society on stage. Whereas, The Great Wave, which was set in Japan and North Korea, told the story of two sisters split up by a wave and how this incident and the global politics affected the family. Though it could be argued that The Great Wave as a play is still doing something whether that is based on a personal connection or something else.  So, I guess the differentiation between doing and telling is subjective, but this is the best example I can give. 

Queens of Sheba cast – Veronica Beatrice Lewis, Rachel Clarke, Koko Kwaku, Jacoba Williams, Movement Director Yassmin V Foster & Assistant Director Jessica Mensah.

PC: Do you see things differently after doing your theatre degree at university?

JM: One thing that my tutors used to say to me was, “What’s your voice?” or “Find your voice in your essays.” And I was like, “I don’t know what that means.” At University, I hated that kind of criticism, but doing a placement year and attending several conversations on representation or class allowed me to return to university with a new perspective. And I began to see and understand the problems within universities and the industry that I was not happy about, but then I learnt that I could create work about the issues that annoyed me. And that felt like I was finding my voice.

So, if I am producing a festival, I ask myself, what’s the gap? That’s another thing that they used to say a lot at university, “What’s the gap in research?” But it’s not just looking at academic research, it’s looking at institutions, or art, and thinking about what is missing? – I think that is a useful perspective to have. When I create a piece of work, depending on what it is, I think about how it is addressing or acknowledging that gap. So, in a way University has influenced me to find my voice, understand what I like, and who I am as a person and what I want to do as a director.

Jessica in FUSE by You & Me Theatre Company – Photo by Eleanor Dickens

PC: How do you go about identifying those gaps?

JM:  Well from my experience, I looked at my university and the curriculum, and it took me a long time, not until I did my placement year to see the gaps. For example, I had never been taught about Black British Theatre makers, so there was that gap. We learnt about postcolonialism, but it was a very American context. And Black British theatre was not something I’d been exposed to until I took a placement year. And people might say, “But you’ve lived in London all your life!” And I’m like, I know, but I wasn’t taught about all these theatre makers because I wasn’t exposed to it. That is an obvious gap in the curriculum.

If I am producing an artist development festival, it’s about asking an audience what they need? As an artist, how can we support you? Or what is missing? What do you want to see? It might be finances or a piece of work they have not been exposed to yet. And then you try and create a festival that addresses those needs.

I think with directing a play it can be a bit different. If your trying to address a gap as a director, you may try to find a story you have not heard of before or want to see more of that experience on stage. And when I look at a play, I tend to speak a lot with the writer to understand their vision and combine my own vision to make sure it fits.

Sophie Bartholomew, Jessica Mensah and Bronte Thomasson in FUSE by You & Me Theatre Company – Photo by Malachy Luckie

PC: How do you negotiate that combination or fit once you’re in rehearsals? How do you identify something in performance that doesn’t fit the text on the page?

JM: If I have written a piece, I think about what I intended those words to do. If it is not doing that in performance, then I might change a word. I’ll then read it aloud to myself or record myself so I can hear it. But if I’m directing it, then I think about how that intention comes through in performance, maybe it needs the tone of voice to change or a gesture. I think about what the actor can do through their performance skills, and then try to communicate how they might find an intention that fits the piece. But sometimes, things just don’t work, and I have to abandon it and start again with fresh eyes. It’s a trial and error approach.

PC: You’ve kindly shared you’re interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah with Essential Drama. How did that interview come about?

JM: It was part of my dissertation. So, after my placement year, I was inspired to find out more about Black British theatre. I researched into the history of Black British Theatre and its growth after the Windrush generation, but for my dissertation I focused in on two plays that I had watched at the time: Misty by Arinzé Kene at the Bush theatre and Queens of Sheba by Jessica L. Hagan produced by Nouveau Riche theatre company. I chose these two plays because Misty explored the idea of what is a black play? and talked about gentrification in London, whilst Queens of Sheba looked at the concept of ‘misogynoir’ and the experience of Black British women. Misty, particularly, inspired me to think about what ‘Black British theatre’ means, so I interviewed Kwame and Ryan Calais Cameron, the Artistic Director of Nouveau Riche. My broad question was looking at the status and function of contemporary Black British Theatre and asking if Black British theatre as a term is still needed today. I know some Black artists might not like the term because it puts us into a box and can be restrictive. And others might think it is needed because it is a term that identifies our history and our work. I concluded that it is a term that is needed today because it is different to the norm that people associate with British theatre more broadly.

My dissertation research opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I learnt about Black scholars in the arts, such as Lynette Goddard. But it also challenged me to not just label theatre makers who are Black instantly as a Black British Theatre maker because some people might not like that term. And to consider that not all Black artists want to just make work about the Black experience, they may have an interest in other types of experiences or plays too.

Jessica directing Clara Harte and Sophie Wilkinson in ROADKILL by Geraldine Lang at Theatre 503 RWR – Photo by Nevardo Williams

PC: How has the experience of doing that research, interviewing those people and doing your placement year informed your own practice?

JM: I wish I had the opportunities to learn about these things sooner, so I’d love to create programmes or opportunities for other young artists. Thinking about the idea of Black British theatre made me realise there are lots of different ways to portray your story as a Black British theatre maker. There is not just one story about how a black person lives; there are several different stories and different ways of approaching it. Poetry and spoken word came up a lot in the work I looked at and that is something that I’d like to bring into my own work. Someone like debbie tucker green is experimental with language and form but she does not just write about the Black British experience. This has made me think a lot about the kind of work I want to do moving forward. I don’t want to box myself in. Yes, I do love directing plays about the Black British experience but that is not the only kind of plays I want to direct or make. And I am still discovering what my practice is or the type of stories I want to tell. I’ve thought a lot about how I present myself as an artist to others, without them instantly thinking, “She’s black, that’s the only type of work she wants to do.”

Jessica Mensah by Nevardo Williams

PC: What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

JM: Learn as much as you can about directing. Get involved in school productions, get to know the industry, and watch as much theatre as you can. Get involved with your local youth theatre as well or get in touch with your local theatre and ask them what they offer for young people. Write a lot more and continue to be creative.

You can download and read Jessica’s dissertation here.

Jessica interviewed Kwame Kwei-Armah for her undergraduate dissertation and her tutor suggested she might share it on this website. You can read her interview with Kwame here.