A Glimpse at Theatre in Jamaica

Jamaicans are some of the most theatrical people you will find anywhere. It is therefore no surprise that this small Caribbean country has one of the most prolific and dynamic  theatrical movements in the Caribbean region and indeed in the wider world; producing stalwarts such as Oliver Samuels and Ranny Williams.

Jamaican theatre is unique in that it focuses on a number of native styles with a modern twist/presentation. Not surprisingly, music, dance, poetry, etc., are commonly integrated into most productions in a skilful way.

History and Development

Jamaican theatre began in the mid-17th century in Spanish Town, the capital city at the time. Over the course of the next century, two theatres were opened in the Spanish Town area and hosted Jamaica's first theatre in 1682. In the next century, two theatres opened in the old capital, as well as one in Kingston. Kingston made a giant leap forward with the construction of the impressive Theatre Royal that debuted in 1840. Of course, performances were also held in other buildings across the island, such as court houses and private homes.

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At this time, most of the dominant faces in performances were British and American actors, belonging to touring companies. In fact, some of these performers even relocated to Jamaica. These groups mostly engaged in Productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. However, other types of dramatic entertainment also flourished. Local groups had a hard time competing with these international acts especially since they were split between social and racial lines.  As the primary audience was the white upper class, most of the all-black groups died out while others sought fame elsewhere.

Theatre Segregation and Other Issues

Segregation in the theatre was commonplace in the early nineteenth century. In 1815 however, black protesters denounced both segregation in theatres and the protest turned into a riot. While the demonstrators received fines and jail time, theatre segregation disappeared the following year.

Racial inequality was not the only issue faced by theatre in Jamaica. The face of Jamaican theatre at this time was quite a dismal picture. Audiences were loud and rowdy. Sometimes they fought among themselves and even assaulted performers or destroyed theatre property. Laws imposed steep penalties on such misbehaviour, but offenses continued until early 1900s.

The Jamaican Style 

In the beginning, Formal theatre rarely presented tales relevant to island life. However, Jamaica soon adopted its own, largely accepted form of theatre formed around its peoples’ cultural heritage and customs. Plays involved a combination of music, dance, storytelling and poetic songs. Marcus Garvey started a theatrical shift embracing black culture. He wrote and produced several plays for the working class that had expressions of island life.

Jamaican Theatre Matures-Pantomime and the Little Theatre Movement

Pantomimes Jamaican theatre took quite a while to reach a stage of maturity. At this time, established contests, shows and performances were quite commonplace. One such dominant show was Pantomime.

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Pantomimes were held sporadically in the 1700s with a combination of songs, dances and magic. In the mid-1900s, the Little Theatre Movement (LTM) popularized pantomimes by fusing its native Jamaican style with English elements. Today, pantomimes are popular events held annually. The plays are quite exuberant, running for several months beginning in December.

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As pantomime matured, Jamaican theatre expanded rapidly as well. Small theatrical and dramatic groups began to emerge and sought to establish themselves. The Barn Theatre was one such group. This gave the rise to ‘roots’ theatre, a form of bawdy comedy filled with sexual innuendo.

The Ward Theatre

Opening in 1912, the Ward Theatre is undoubtedly the most famous theatre in the Caribbean. Some argue it has been the most influential as well. The majestic structure replaced the Royal Theatre which had been destroyed due to an earthquake.

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The theatre evolved with a prestigious reputation and even entertained performances by Broadway actors and other influential theatrical movements. However, both the building and the surrounding neighbourhood became depressed sometime thereafter, which has discouraged attendances.

Modern Jamaican Theatre

There have been recent efforts to revitalise Jamaica’s original theatrical form. To bring the Ward Theatre back into mainstream, the Jamaican government has funded a revitalisation project, facilitating audiences as much as possible with an effort to rejuvenate interest in this kind of theatre. The Ward Theatre continues to host a wide variety of performances, including plays, the annual pantomimes, and dance productions.

Most of the country’s other theatres are located in Kingston as well. Sometimes, due to the small size of these theatres, performances are held at hotel auditoriums, halls and at public facilities. Some companies host all-island tour productions, often playing in school auditoriums.

Today, Jamaican theatre mainly focuses on scripted plays which generally reflect life in Jamaica and stories related to day to day living in the country. Playwrights such as Basil Dawkins and Paul O. Beale write in Jamaican patios and mostly produce the all-time popular roots plays and plays with social or political commentary.

National Dance Theatre Company, NDTC

The internationally acclaimed dance troupe, the National Dance Theatre Company delivers one of the most impressive forms expressive of Jamaican culture in the form of dance. The Hon. Rex Nettleford established the group more than 30 years ago. The group pulls large crowds and features dances that celebrate traditional and modern Caribbean dance forms. The NDTC singers add to the entertainment package. Productions are scheduled throughout the year.

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The Actor Boy Awards

Jamaican playwrights, performances and performers are recognised each year with various awards and tokens. The Actor Boy Awards is akin to the Oscars and this features awards in different arrears of theatre. It also features overall best productions and performers for the year.

Oliver Samuels – Image Credit: http://www.abengnews.com/

Issues with Modern Jamaican Theatre

Jamaican theatre has gone through a long period of metamorphism. Today, Jamaican theatre has its own form and style. One problem, however is that playwrights usually write in patois (local dialects), which some tourists may not understand. While it is necessary to keep the authenticity of the performances, especially as it relates to verbiage, universal inclusion is also of importance.

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Regardless, many Jamaican plays and playwrights have achieved worthwhile recognition and a worldwide reputation for quality productions. Names such as Trevor Rhone and Patrick Brown come to mind. “Bashment Granny”, a play written by Jamaican actor Garfield ‘Bad Boy Trevor’ Reid gained huge success upon its release. The play featured popular actors in Jamaica such as Maxwell ‘Mama Man’ Grant and Keith Ramsay (Shebada).

These actors have followed in the footsteps of Jamaican actors and actresses such as Leonie Forbes and Oliver Samuels who have helped to effectively shape the face of Jamaican theatre. As more playwrights emerge and Jamaican theatre continues to exude the same dynamism and satirical fun that it has always portrayed, we can rest assured that theatre in Jamaica will always be alive and well.

By Norvan martin



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