Patricia Cumper MBE (Girton ’73)

© Patricia Cumper

Patricia Cumper, MBE, FRSA, is an award-winning playwright, director, theatre producer, radio drama writer, arts administrator, and an advocate for the arts.

Cumper was born in Jamaica to English and Jamaican parents. Before beginning her writing pursuits, Cumper was a high school student at The Queen’s School in Kingston when she won a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge was already part of her family’s history; her mother, Gloria Carpenter, was the first Black woman to graduate from the institution in 1948. Her parents lectured at the Sociology department, which dissuaded a young Cumper from pursuing the subject because she did not wish to draw attention to herself. Cumper matriculated in 1973 at Girton College, where she studied Archaeology and Anthropology. 

At Cambridge, Cumper excelled in her studies and received the College Exhibitions based on her academic results. Additionally, she participated in the swim team, eventually becoming the Ladies Captain of the university team and won a Full Blue (the highest honor given to a Cambridge athlete who competes at the top level of a university sport with the University of Oxford).

Cumper’s time at Girton overlapped with West African writer and actor Temi Wilkey, who was also an undergraduate student then. Wilkey, however, was one among only a few other Black students that Cumper knew of studying at Cambridge. Despite her accomplishments, Cumper was often isolated, lacked mentors and role models, and was treated with hostility on campus based on her race, leading her to describe her experience at Cambridge, in an interview with the Black Cantabs Research Society, as “a mixed blessing.” 

Cumper returned to Jamaica after graduation, where she lived for 15 years and launched her career as a writer. She wrote two major radio soap operas, Malvina’s Revenge, and Mortimer Simmons. Later, Cumper came back to the UK in 1993, a journey that broadened “the range of characters and stories” she explored in her writings. Her radio adaptations have drawn on the legacy of other Black female authors, such as her recent adaptation of six volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, The Amazing Maya Angelou, and her 2015 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved.

Her play, Chigger Foot Boys, about African and Caribbean soldiers in the First World War, was staged in 2017 at London’s Tara Arts Theatre. The Key Game is another prominent play by Cumper that features four characters’ lives at a psychiatric hospital in Jamaica. First premiered in 2004, The Key Game was shown in the United States in 2018 at the New Perspectives Studio in Manhattan. 

From 2006 to 2012, Cumper led the Talawa Theater Company, a Black British theatre company, as Artistic Director. In this capacity, she produced a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the first all-Black production in the UK. Currently, Cumper is the co-host of The Amplify Project with Paulina Walker, a podcast featuring Black writers, and she is also the producer and director of Faith, Hope and Glory, a BBC audio drama series about three Windrush generation couples. She is a trustee of English Touring Theatre, Spare Tyre, Utopia Theatre Company, and the British Museum.