The 67 bus, friendship, sex, UK garage, school, music, teachers, friendship, periods, emergency contraceptive, arse and tits, friendship, raves, tampons, white boys, God, money. Friendship. Aaron, Candice, sex and Connor Jones.
Ten years on, not much has changed for Tracey Gordon, star of the play Chewing Gum Dreams. She may now be 24 but she’s still obsessed with religion and Beyoncé. And she’s still unaware of quite how funny she is.
But life has changed quite drastically for the playwright behind it, Michaela Coel. She’s been busy writing Tracey ten years on and the result, the TV series Chewing Gum, will be hitting our screens soon.
We talk to this young woman who grew up on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, not unlike Tracey’s. She is now a poet, singer-songwriter, screenwriter, playwright and award-winning actress.
Congratulations on completing Chewing Gum and allowing us into your creative chasm.
Chewing Gum Dreams was a play which attracted critical acclaim after your performances at the National Theatre in 2012. How have you found the transition from theatre to TV?
An amazing journey but a difficult one! Creating the stories was the fun part, giving Tracey a family, creating her sister Cynthia was particularly enjoyable and creating Connor, who only actually had one word in the play ‘Yeah?’. I should say at this point that it was a one-woman show so I played 11 of the characters; some of whom survived the transition into television; some of whom did not.
The hard part was the structure of television: things like commercial breaks, comedy codas and specifics of creating a half-hour comedy were not things that came instinctively to me but things I had to learn. There was a lot of redrafting of episode one but once I got into the swing of it, I was no longer crying in a ball of frustration on the floor.
I’m black. I was born black but I was also born poor, which on my estate was the headline.
It actually became a positive experience. There was a cafe open 24/7 near my producer’s office so I’d write there, sometimes for two days in a row with no sleep until I was happy with the work.
Chewing Gum is a semi-autobiographical experience of you growing up in Tower Hamlets. Does Tracey reflect your own character or is she more an amalgamation of people that you grew up with on the estate?
She’s definitely an amalgamation of people whom I’ve crossed paths with in my life, not just on my estate but in my school and in church on Sunday.
Religion is a key theme throughout and consumes your sister’s character Cynthia. Is there an inherent battle between being you and feeling like an impromptu race correspondent at times?
A race correspondent? What does that mean? Haha. I guess given that I don’t even know, this ‘inherent battle’ is one that doesn’t exist for me. I’m black. I was born black but I was also born poor, which on my estate was the headline. We all struggled financially and that crossed shades and ethnicities. Poverty, on my estate, was no respecter of race!
I discovered that being west African with hair that defied gravity may not have been as beautiful as I now see it, but I think that’s just part of growing up.
Later on in life, as I found myself moving in predominantly black circles, I discovered that my skin was dark – and for a girl that may not have been the biggest blessing… Haha. I discovered that being west African with hair that defied gravity may not have been as beautiful as I now see it, but I think that’s just part of growing up. I trained myself into believing I was beautiful and that I was capable of anything if I truly believed I wanted to do it. …I’ve lost my trail of thought- I hope a fitting answer is in there somewhere!
Another E4 drama Youngers and the film Gone Too Far! are recent and rare examples where the inner-city context isn’t bleak. How imperative was it for you to relay the humour as well as pressures surrounding a young black female in your scripts?
I didn’t intentionally set out to relay the pressures surrounding a black female; it’s just that I tend to write from personal life and black/brown is the only colour I’ve ever been! It might not be the experience of an average black female; I wouldn’t want the pressure of feeling that I was writing the biography of an entire group of people!
You’re also a writer, singer, playwright and poet. How do you balance all the ideas within the respective mediums you want to express yourself?
I walk with the phrase ‘jack of all trades and master of none is better than being a master of none.’ It’s even on my Instagram profile! It just takes the pressure off. I’m not trying to be a scholar in anything; if I was I would have gone and done scriptwriting or something before I wrote my first play. There’s a great TED talk about ‘genius’ and what it means.
I’ve been performing, creating and producing my own events long before I went to Guildhall and continue to create, produce, market my own work after.
I don’t think I have gifts inside of me. I think sometimes the genius (a goblin, a little fairy, Jesus Christ – whatever you see it as) comes to visit my brain or heart sometimes and it has me bouncing off the walls with song lyrics, plays, television script ideas, poetry. I just try to stay open and see what happens.
New forms of social media such as Vine, Snapchat and Instagram have fostered a DIY element along with the immediate ease to create entertainment. Coming from a traditional finishing school at the Guildhall, how crucial is it for you to share your imagination but also be relentless with regard to the quality of your work?
I didn’t necessarily ‘come from’ Guildhall, I’d been performing, creating and producing my own events long before I went to that school and continued to create, produce, market my own work after. I think social media as a form of entertainment is pretty amazing when you’re good at it. I’ve seen some incredibly hilarious things and some heart breaking things; quality, for me, is not about what the work looks like but the feeling it provokes in the watcher or listener. And quality can be present despite financial budget or certificates of drama school attendance.
London and the sense of community embodied throughout Chewing Gum seems to be a fertile bed that enriches your prose. What is it about the city that inspires you to create and tell stories of truth being British born of African descent?
I like the cacophony of cultures. I grew up on an estate that started off in a relatively derelict part of London which is now constantly being closed in on by buildings like Pret, Itsu, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. I suppose, before my estate is swallowed up completely, that I wanted to create something that would make me feel like it would never die; the life I’ve lived and the joy of not having anything but each other.
Before we’re all split up and sent to Liverpool by the gentrification monster, I wanted to transform my block into something that couldn’t be demolished.
Were there any songs you listened to during filming?
Shakka’s When Will I See You Again
Lastly, what is the funniest thing you witnessed on your estate?
Not on my estate, but in girls’ only secondary school… My 5’10 classmate running around topless and moving her torso in a way that made her boobs swing round and round, with a bottle of alcohol hidden in a black plastic bag. That image pretty much sums up my school days.
Chewing Gum premieres on E4 from October 6.
Catch Michaela on Twitter @michaelacoel