Thursday, 23 March 2017

WORKING GIRLS: Performance showcases, insightful discussions take centrestage at Women In Theatre Fest

TALK THAT TALK: Yvonne Brewster (right), with Carol Lawes and Jean Small, during the Directors Showcase.

ALL of last week, as the Jamaica Women In Theatre Festival kicked into high gear, you kept hearing one constant refrain: kudos to Dahlia Harris and co-organizer Nicole Brown for the visionary leadership that led to the genesis of such a fantastic showcase of the skills, intellect, creativity and opinions of the female practitioners currently working in the theatrical arts, safeguarding the legacy of the legends who paved the way and ushering in a bold and exciting new era in Jamaican theatre. 

The 7-day festival, the first of its kind in Jamaica (and the English-speaking Caribbean, for that matter), had a super-successful inaugural staging at New Kingston’s Phoenix Theatre, bringing together the industry’s best and brightest, established and emerging, writers, directors, technical experts, stage managers and actresses for a series of panel discussions and performance showcases, which proved, above all, that the women have not only been making serious strides, they have lots more to offer.

Deborah Hickling, moderated the opening session (on the business of theatre) drawing eye-opening contributions from such panelists as financial whiz and avid theatergoer Yaneek Page and attorney/actress/singer Coleen Lewis and male colleagues Lenford Salmon of Jambiz and Harold Davis of the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC).

The following evening, a discussion on stagecraft took centrestage, with the likes of ace set designer PJ Stewart, light-and-sound engineer Aisha Robinson, costume mistress Carolyn Chin-Yee, budding stage manager Mijanne Webster and Philip Sherlock Centre technical manager Nadia Roxburgh – all weighing in on the joys and challenges of their life-in-the-theatre experiences. Up next was a segment on directing featuring the likes of Dr. Jean Small, Carol Lawes and British-based living legend Yvonne Brewster.

Then came three nights of performance showcases. While the Actors Showcase served up memorable excerpts from productions like The Trial of Governor Eyre (National Reparations Commission), Not My Child (Probemaster Entertainment) and Demons In Me (Jamaica Youth Theatre), the Writers Showcase delivered crowd-pleasing pieces from Harris’ God Go Wid Yuh, Suzanne Beadle’s 70x7: The Real Truth and Tanya Batson-Savage’s Woman Tongue

As for the Directors Showcase, Fae Ellington and actress Makeda Solomon revived the award-winning Who Will Sing for Lena?, Small offered humour and food for thought with Balance, while Nadean Rawlins brought from MoBay her maiden theatrical revue #Hashtag, which smartly explores how social media has captured the public imagination. 

The festival wouldn’t have been complete without some icons being honoured. For the closing session, Sylvia Winter, Una Marson and Louise Bennett-Coverley were posthumously recognized with special tributes and staged readings of their classic theatrical works. 

Poised to be an annual event, the Jamaica Women in Theatre Festival intends to create opportunities for women in the theatrical arts and develop skills necessary for successful stage productions, while honoring women’s contributions to storytelling, innovation and artistic advancement.

GOSPEL SPOTLIGHT: Univ. of Arkansas Inspirational Chorale raise the roof with captivating harmonies

VOICES IN PRAISE: The visiting UoA Chorale during the NCU leg of their concert tour.

WHO knew “And He Shall Purify” from Handel’s Messiah could work with a jazzy, gospel-infused treatment? The University of Arkansas Inspirational Chorale, currently on a week-long concert tour of Jamaica, proved that with a little innovation and clever arrangement, even the most celebrated classical work can be given a rousing contemporary spin.

That said, what the choir served up was a winningly melodious take, dubbed a soulful celebration of Handel’s magnum opus, one of the many highlights during their kick-off concert, which drew a standing ovation at the University Chapel, Mona Campus, on Sunday evening.

Under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Murdock, the 75-voice choir (30 students made the trip) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and decided to make their Jamaica and Caribbean debut with this much-welcomed concert tour, scheduled to make stops at NCU, The St. Andrew Parish Church and the Hope Zoo, under the auspices of the UWI Alumni Association.

In a nutshell, the choir (a diverse mix of Black, Asian and White choristers), specializing in “Black sacred music,” puts on quite a show, offering tunes (gospel anthems, spiritual gems) laced with tight harmonies and all-around flavourful singing. It’s the kind of choir you want to lead your Sunday morning worship and give a mini concert every week.

After opening the show with a hand-clapping, toe-tapping version of “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour,” the black-and-white clad troupe slowed down the tempo with beautifully rendered acapella treatments of “Blessed Assurance”, “Take It To The Lord in Prayer “and the Noel Dexter-arranged “O’er Blue Mountain”, with commanding solo work by Canadian tenor and teacher Dr. Christopher McRae.

“I hope we Americans do it justice,” Murdock quipped ahead of their rendition of Dexter’s popular “Psalm 150”, a highly commendable effort, performed just before “And He Shall Purify”, a great showcase for the soprano line, brought the curtains down on Part One.

Mona’s University Chorale, sporting light green and black ensembles, was the evening’s supporting act, opening Part Two with a quartet of sublime spirituals (Dexter’s “Psalm 24” and “The Magnificat”, “They Crucified My Lord” and “Beulah Lan’”), which fit perfectly into the two-hour programme and was met with resounding applause. 

Taking the floor again, for the second half, the Arkansas Chorale wasted little time, reconnecting with their beautifully resonant song selections. While the soothing strains of “My Soul’s Been Anchored”, “Under His Wings” and “I Can Tell the World” echoed at all the right moments, with “Even Me Lord” they delivered captivating, altar-call stuff. 

“Joyful Joyful”, meanwhile, was a jubilant explosion of energy and harmony, but they saved the absolute best for last with a powerful, soul-stirring rendition of the Richard Smallwood/Brooklyn Tabernacle classic “Total Praise”, which sent the audience home on a magical high.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

NEWS & NOTES: A new Bob Marley musical + Arkansas chorale in concert + ISSA’s firm stance

> RESPECT DUE: ISSA fires warning shots ahead of Champs 2017 
When it comes to protecting the rights of privileges of its committed sponsors and partners, the Inter-Secondary Schools’ Sports Association (ISSA) is taking a zero-tolerance approach in dealing with those entities that refuse to respect and abide by the rules governing the affairs of the annual Boys & Girls Champs. “We ask companies and individuals to respect the intellectual property rights of the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys’ and Girls’ Championships and not engage in any negativity that might create a commercial association with ISSA, the championships or any participating athletes before, during or after the period of the championships,” the association emphasized in a full-page advisory that ran in the local papers last week. “Any entity or individual which engages in ambush marketing either before, during or after the [Champs] or any unauthorized filming of the event by any means will be pursued to the full extent of the law.” Official sponsors of Champs 2017 include GraceKennedy, Puma, Western Union, First Global Bank, Lucozade and Flow. 

> ‘MARLEY’ MAGIC: One Love musical premieres in England 
Another year, another Bob Marley-based stage production. One Love: The Bob Marley Musical opened last Friday in Birmingham, England, with an exuberant cast and crew led by writer/director Kwame Kwei Armah, who decided to zone in on the 1976-8 period of Bob’s life, highlighted by his sojourn in England in the wake of that assassination attempt (Dec. 3, 1976) on his life. The musical also captured the events that led to the birth of Exodus, Marley’s classic album that was Time’s pick for Album of the Millennium in 1991. For the record, the Marley family has endorsed Armah’s musical. “I turn down requests to use Daddy’s name and work every day, but I gave the musical my blessing because it is beautiful and the message is powerful,” Cedella Marley, CEO of the Bob Marley Group of Companies, told the Birmingham Mail. “Birmingham is the ideal place for the musical. Daddy loved performing there and had a great affection for Britain. We try to preserve his words and share them, [and] the musical is one of the ways we do that and hope to reach new audiences.”

> CONCERT TOUR: Univ. of Arkansas choir touches down in JA 
Jamaica has played host to large number of internationally acclaimed choral groups over the years, including the renowned Howard University Chorale and Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral Chorus, ranked among the best all-boy choirs in the world. This month brings the dynamic University of Arkansas Inspirational Chorale to our shores for a series of performances. On Sunday, March 19, the choir tested the acoustics of Mona’s University Chapel at a 5 o’clock concert (look out for our review!). On Monday, March 20, they journeyed to Mandeville’s Northern Caribbean University for a 7o’clock show. On Tuesday, March 21, they graced the Half Way Tree-based St. Andrew Parish Church for a 7pm concert, and on Wednesday, March 22, they’ll bring a joyful noise to the Hope Zoo for a performance commencing at 8pm. See the press for details.

LARGER THAN LIFE: Inaugural Curvy C'bean Conference aims to empower and celebrate full-figured beauty

GIRL POWER: Jarrett (left), with designer Donaldene Berwick, striking a pose at the recent launch.

“I’VE never allowed me weight to stop me. When I was Minister of Tourism, there wasn’t anything I did not try. I was fearless. It didn’t matter what size I was. I don’t see it,” declared COK’s full-figured queenpin Aloun Assamba, as she addressed the sizeable gathering at the recent launch party for the inaugural Curvy Caribbean Conference, the region’s first conference in celebration and empowerment of the big girls.

The launch took place on the grounds of the House of Neahlis on Ardenne Road in St. Andrew. “I can laugh at myself. [Teasing] doesn’t bother me; it runs off my back. So I’m very glad for this conference. I think it will really open up the eyes of Jamaicans. We’re here, we’re healthy and we’re not going anywhere.”

The conference, slated for April 8 and 9 at The Worthington, Spanish Court Hotel, is the brainchild of entrepreneur and plus-size fashion designer Alisia Jarrett, who is the first to admit that she and other women like her have had to endure prejudice and humiliation over the years. “From fatty to fluffy and mampie, women my size have been subject to ridicule. I’ve felt pressured to lose weighty, but I woke up,” she noted. “This is not just my story. It’s the story of countless women who’ve been told repeatedly that they need to lose some weight, leading to lo self-esteem.”

Jarrett also cited a study conducted by Dove, which found that six out of 10 girls opt out of physical activity because they are afraid of being judged for the way they look. For others, it’s their work and academic performance that suffers. It’s against this backdrop that the idea for the CCC was born. “We want full-figured women to value themselves and realize their true potential. Curvy women are fabulous and deserve to always look their best,” said Jarrett, who runs the wellness company LivingWell NaturalCare.

“We also want the conference to talk about the challenges and pressures of society and how we can confidently embrace who we are, where we are right here and now and also to boost our egos with gorgeous hairstyles and fabulous clothes.”

The two-day event will feature informative discussions and workshops addressing everything from body image, health and fitness to dating, fashion and business. Five gorgeous ambassadors have been named for the inaugural conference: international plus-size models Tessenie Mowatt and Tricia Campbell, Atlanta-based blogger Nikki Freestyle and businesswomen Gianna Fakhourie, who will co-host the proceedings with TV and stage star Dahlia Harris.

Predictably, attendees are in for a run time, attending sessions led by the likes of Yendi Phillipps (reggae dance class), Neahlis (hair and makeup), Courtney Washington (The Curvy Designers Open Challenge) and Rodney Campbell (Curvy Life Challenges), among others. 

Professor Carolyn Cooper had nothing but high praises for the organizing committee and a firm message for the ladies who will be flocking to the conference next month. “This conference is about celebrating our diversity as women. Ladies, accept yourselves for who you are. Some men have unrealistic expectations. Don’t many any men make you feel insecure about how you look,” Cooper advised. “As Caribbean people we have different standards of beauty. In our culture, a lot of men love their women with meat on their bones. So we need to look at the whole psychology of female beauty and how the beauty industry conspires to make women feel small.” 

Sponsors for the inaugural Curvy Caribbean Conference are Kerry-Kay, Lifespan, On Point Makeup & Beauty, COK, and Stayfree.

Monday, 20 March 2017

THIS MAN’S WORK: Derek Walcott leaves behind a sterling legacy, magical poetry

WORDS TO LIVE BY: The Nobel Laureate addressing the crowd at the Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach in 2008.

Among the elder statesmen of West Indian literature, Derek Walcott was the gold standard. A patriotic son of St. Lucia, he easily stood out among his peers (Naipaul, Selvon, Brathwaite and Lamming) in the pantheon reserved for the literary giants of the region. That’s why his death is so deeply felt. And not just among the literati. Poet, playwright, scholar, thinker, fine artist, Walcott inspired a whole generation of young and emerging talents regionally and globally. Like Rex Nettleford of Jamaica, his is a legacy that’s as larger-than-life as the reputation that preceded him. 

Born on January 32, 1930 in Castries, Walcott – the son of a schoolteacher mother and a writer/painter father – made his transition on Friday after a period of ill health. His longtime publishers Farrar Straus & Giroux made the announcement, sparking a wave of tributes and lengthy newspaper obituaries. He was 87 years old.

Though his oeuvre includes such classic plays as Dream on Monkey Mountain and Ti-Jean & His Brothers, Walcott’s name has become synonymous with evocative poetry that sings of Caribbean rivers, green nights the legacy of our colonial heritage and our unseverable ties to the Motherland (“How can I turn from Africa and live?”, A Far Cry from Africa). The Fortunate Traveller, Omeros, Another Life, and The Prodigal are just a few of the collections that leave readers in awe at home and abroad.

Jamaican admirers have been fortunate to have audience with the celebrated wordsmith at readings and book signings over the years, most memorably at the Calabash Literary Festival at Jake’s in Treasure Beach in 2008 and at a standing-room-only symposium at the Knutsford Court Hotel in New Kingston in 2012.

Walcott’s life was a fascinating study of contours and contrasts: the sublime poetry, plays and paintings; the Oxford scandal that sorely tested his mettle; his critics and biographers who’ve done their best to capture his truth (Jamaica’s Eddie Baugh among them); the artists who’ve immortalized him and, of course, the career-defining Nobel win in 1992, making him the first Caribbean native to be awarded the highly coveted Literature prize.

“The Nobel Prize brings a lot of responsibility. Your life becomes very active. There is so much demanded of you, and it’s almost like a torment,” he confessed to his Kingston audience in 2012. “It’s like saying ‘I won? Wow! And then saying ‘Oh Jesus. I won!’ I’ve never said that. But it can be very exhausting. In that way, I guess it does change your life because it make you be at the call of people who want you to read at events like these, and so on.”

Some of us were born to sing, some to till the soil, others to heal the sick. Walcott always knew he was here to write. “I knew from the time I was a child that that was what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a poet, and given that my mother was a teacher and my father was a writer and painter,” he said. “So I knew my vocation and I’ve always considered myself lucky because I knew exactly what I wanted to do from age six or seven.” 

Rest now, Sir. The work lives on. 

From the TALLAWAH Archives: 
>Walcott in Kingston: On the writing life and the Nobel Prize 
>‘I’m Disappointed’: Walcott responds to Oxford hoopla

Saturday, 18 March 2017

TALK OF THE TOWN: Debbie, Shelly have buns in the oven + WIE 2017 a super-success + Racers planning grand Bolt salute…

HE IS LEGEND: It comes as no surprise that given his impending retirement from competitive athletics this summer, Usain Bolt’s family at the Racers Track Club are planning to honour him in a major way, at the second annual Racers Grand Prix, set for June 10 at the National Stadium. Dubbed “Salute to a Legend,” the IAAF-certified meet has naturally attracted a wave of sponsors, elite participants (Mo Farah, Wayde Van Niekerk), and international media whose names were officially announced when organizers, led by club president and head coach Glen Mills, hosted the meet’s press launch in Kingston on Friday. But Bolt will undoubtedly be the star attraction at the event, which is a major warm-up exercise on the road to the IAAF World Championships taking place in London in August. 

BABY ON BOARD: What do Debbie Bissoon (above), Janella Precius, Emprezz Golding and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce all have in common? Apart from being gorgeous, relentlessly achieving Jamaican women, they are all expectant moms! After we got the deets on Shelly’s pregnancy via news reports that went viral last week and saw Emprezz’s fabulous spread in Flair, we ‘bumped’ into a radiantly glowing and showing (at the Women in Energy conference at the Pegasus), who confirmed her impending motherhood and that of her TV-J sistah Janella. “It’s great that all of us are about to become mothers,” Debbie told us, taking a break from filming behind-the-scenes footage of the conference. “I’m really looking forward to the experience.” 

LADIES FIRST: Speaking of strong Jamaican women, what a glorious celebration of success, survival and sisterhood unfolded at Women In Energy 2017, which assembled a host of inspiring, powerful and game-changing women (and a few men!) at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel for two days of motivational talk and life-affirming testimonies last week. The JPS team cannot be lauded enough for such a relevant and timely initiative, which we expect to be an even more joyous occasion next year and in the years to come. 

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: How come Khadine ‘Miss Kitty’ Hylton is not among the ambassadors or presenters for the inaugural Curvy Caribbean Conference, the region’s “first plus-size conference”, being staged by local organizers in Kingston next month? Launched last Tuesday, the CCC is set for April 8 and 9 at The Worthington, Spanish Court Hotel. We thought that Miss Kitty would be a natural for the planned seminars and discussions aimed at empowering the fluffy divas among us. Just sayin'.

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Actor Boy nominee Stephen-Rhae Johnson relishes the role of evolving thespian

FAMILY MAN: Johnson (as James) surrounded by his queens (played by Suzanne Beadle and Renae Williams) in 70X7: The Real Truth.

DON’T be fooled by Stephen-Rhae Johnson’s clean-cut image and cool-calm-collected demeanour. This 28-year-old is a competent and intuitive actor fast-tracking in his career, who brings grit and fierce intelligence, surprising depth and range to his portrayals. For proof look no further than his breakout turn (alternating with Wynton Williams) as the titular Old Testament hero in Father HoLung & Friends’ mega-musical Moses, for which the Actor Boy judges have nominated him for Best Actor for the upcoming awards, putting him in the company of such seasoned pros as Jean-Paul Menou and Glen Campbell.

He has one word to sum up the experience. “It’s surreal. I know that word is used a lot, but I can think of no better word to describe what I’m feeling,” confesses Johnson, a self-proclaimed church dude who got a kick out of breathing life into a Biblical patriarch for whom he’s always held deep admiration. “It was fun being Moses. It was truly a wild ride and a rollercoaster of emotions trying to bring what you read in the script to the performance and putting your own flavour to it.”

Johnson, who is of average built and stands at six-two, has worked with the Father HoLung crew before, co-starring in 2008’s Jam Reggae Opera after acing the auditions. He’s also done time with the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company (2009’s Beauty & the Beast) and gotten tips from David Tulloch (2016’s Block 24, At the Barricades). But being a part of the spectacle and majesty of Moses (thanks to a recommendation from lighting maestro Robin Baston) has been the chief highlight of his fledgling career so far. “Just to be called in to do a role like that,” he reflects, “was a feat in itself.” 

Johnson, who got bit by the performing-arts bug as a kid acting and singing in shows at the Trench Town New Testament Church, is intent on building a solid body of work populated by roles that show off his stage presence and versatility. That’s precisely why he accepted the part of James Morgan in this month’s 70X7: The Real Truth, playing a devoted father and husband grappling with a major family crisis.

“James is a man trying to keep his family together, and I admire that. He’s trying so hard not to lose his cool and keep his secret that the pressure starts to get to him,” Johnson shares, sitting across from me inside the Phoenix Theatre, moments after wrapping another sold-out performance. “He’s a complex character. There’s a lot going on inside that he feels he cannot share, and I can relate to that; that need for self-preservation.” 

But the theatre door is where the drama ends for this Spanish Town-by-way-of-Portmore native, who has been happily married to his longtime sweetheart Davi since August 2016. “I’m proud of him. This is his passion. He’s very alive when he’s on stage. That’s how I met him,” she tells TALLAWAH.

When he’s not inhabiting strong masculine characters or playing Mr. Romantic at home, Stephen-Rhae Johnson (a Wolmer’s Boys alum who holds Computer Science degree from UWI Mona) works as a network administrator (“a very challenging job”) in a field he’s passionate about. But the stage will always be his first love. 

“I love the idea of evolving as an actor. I’m a student of the theatre and acting as a craft,” shares Johnson, whose idols include Johnny Depp, Steve Carell and Denzel Washington. “I’m looking forward to evolving some more. And I think it’s rewarding to help others develop their talent as well. Talent is just one side of the coin; you have to work hard at it.”

>> REVIEW: The verdict on 70X7: The Real Truth