Wednesday, October 1, 2014

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: 'Mek Wi Laugh' heads centrestage + An emerging actress sizzles + Fairfield Theatre shining again

PUNCH LINES: Making good on her promise to bring the hit animated TV sketch comedy series Mek Wi Laugh to the Kingston stage, Lady Rennae has assembled an all-star cast and recruited A-list director David Tulloch to bring her one-of-a-kind vision to life. Actor Boy and Thespy winner Donald 'Iceman' Anderson, who earned raves for his brilliant turns in December's My God Don't Wear Pajamas, shares top billing with the likes of Rosie Murray (whose one-woman show has been shelved indefinitely), Christopher 'Johnny' Daley, Leighton Smith, and the inimitable Suzette Barrett (Pularchie), last seen bringing the heat in the prize-winning drama Thicker Than Water. As we all know, Lady Rennae's brand of humour is not for the faint-hearted — spiky, gut-busting stuff that effectively works as stand-up and animated comedy. So it will be interesting to see how this theatrical adaptation plays out. Jamaica Mek Wi Laugh premieres at the Green Gables Theatre on October 10.

SHE'S ALL THAT: In the riotous new comedy The Prophet, the most emotionally precise moments don't come at the hands of seasoned stars Keith 'Shebada' Ramsey and Garfield 'Bad Bwoy Trevor' Reid — or talented relative newcomer Marlon Brown. Instead, fast-rising leading lady Dainty Bellanfantie (certainly one to watch) delivers her performance as the beleaguered single mom Mercedes with such expressiveness, emotional depth and self-assured conviction that you immediately sense the artistic maturity she's been subjecting herself to of late. Then again, she might very well chalk up this amazing growth spurt to the influence of her competent colleagues, or a director (David Tulloch strikes again!) notorious for challenging his actors for the better. But whatever has catapulted this young actress (pictured above with costar Junior Williams) onto this fabulous evolutionary curve is now reaping the rich dividends.

WESTERN DELIGHT: Is the Fairfield Theatre making a comeback? By all appearances, the St. James-based house (nestled on a hill on the outskirts of Montego Bay) is experiencing a welcome rejuvenation spell, with the likes of Nadean Rawlins, Carla Moore and Dahlia Harris, among several other Kingston-based practitioners, joining forces to bring the energy and excitement of 'town' theatre to the MoBay masses. Harris' most recent work, Her Last Cry, having down the rounds here in the capital, is currently wowing audiences down there. No doubt Douglas Prout, a workhorse at Fairfield for years, is beside himself with gratitude for the little company as the theatre, which most famously spawned the record-setting musical drama White Witch in 2010, gradually inches its way back into the spotlight.

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THE SOCIAL NETWORK: Out and About with Harry Belafonte, Ailey II and Wolmer's Troupe dancers, Barry O'Brien, T-Rizzy, and Usain Bolt

A STAR IS BORN: September 29, Kingston. That's the spirit! As hostess Terri-Karelle Reid looks on, Digicel CEO Barry O'Brien presents 2014 Rising Stars champ, T-Rizzy, with his cheque valued at 1 million dollars, as the curtains (and the confetti) came down on Season 11 of the hit TV series inside the TVJ Studios on Sunday night. Crowd favourite JL, meanwhile, took home the runner-up prize of $600,000 and enough memories to last a lifetime. (Photo: Digicel)

A CHORUS LINE: September 28, Kingston. The enthralling energy and brilliant artistry of America's Ailey II Dance Company was simply unbearable inside the Little Theatre on Sunday evening as the world-famous troupe, touring 40 cities for its 2014-15 season, performed under the auspices of the Wolmer's Trust. (Photo: TALLAWAH)

STAGE PRESENCE: September 27, Kingston. Bringing the curtains on another stellar season, Artistic Director Barbara McDaniel joined her energetic Wolmer's Troupe dancers on stage Saturday night, where she was surprised with a gorgeous floral token. Come 2015, the popular dance company turns 25. (Photo: TALLAWAH)

FIGURE OF SPEECH: September 24, United States. Perpetually in demand for his impactful motivational addresses, Harry Belafonte recently delivered the keynote speech at the 2014 Growing Up Locked Down Conference inside the New School's Tischman Auditorium in New York City. (Photo:

STRIKE A POSE: September 5, United States. While on the North American leg of his global tour earlier this month, Usain Bolt joined the tennis-loving set at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York to catch live Day 12 action of the US Open — and hang with Grand Slam champ Venus Williams (snapping a pic) and her big sis Lyndrea Price. (Photo: Getty Images)

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FEAST FOR THE EYES: Ailey II's Kingston recital offered a magical, sensory experience

TAKING FLIGHT: Dancers performing "Virtues," one of the show's most captivating pieces.

Six men appear centrestage, bare-chested and clad in high-waisted black skirts. Against a vivid red backdrop they form a circle and launch into a series of manoeuvres and entanglements that seriously highlight their taut physiques and sheer masculine physicality. Before long, the homoerotic tension mounts and the intense musical accompaniment (Les Tambours du Bronx) takes on an increasingly sinister vibe. We are witnessing "The Hunt," a 2001 work choreographed by the great Robert Battle, and one of the major highlights that made up the programme at Sunday's hugely enjoyable recital by the Ailey II dance company inside Kingston's Little Theatre.

An internationally renowned troupe — founded in 1974 as the junior department of the venerable Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Company — Ailey II delivers best when the imagery before our eyes is nothing short of spectacular. And there was plenty of that to go round during Sunday's well-attended performance, staged under the auspices of the Wolmer's Trust (celebrating anniversary number 285). This Kingston performance also represented one of the stops on the company's global 2014-15 tour.

They showed us only four works on Sunday, but nonetheless they were as immensely satisfying as they were gorgeously costumed and vibrantly lit. The choreography, clearly from the creative imagination of some brilliant minds, was just as spellbinding. And there's no other way to say this: artistically, the dancers are perfection, endowed with jaw-dropping agility, grace and the kind of simplistically beautiful technique that leaves you transfixed. Every detail communicates a sensory experience. 

In addition to "The Hunt," the dancers did an excerpt from 2006's "Splendid Isolation," choreographed by Jessica Lang and featuring a haunting solo called "The Calling" performed by the magnetic Aubree Brown. Jennifer Archibald's flighty "Wings" (from 2013) gave the show a solid opening, and the brilliantly crafted "Virtues," Amy Hall Garner's 2012 masterwork, equal parts joyous and atmospheric, kept the dancers light on their feet right up to the final pliĆ©. 

Striking unmistakable parallels with Jamaica's own National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), Ailey II has decades of tradition and legacy to uphold — and, best of all, a gifted set of new-generation dancers (six young ladies, six lads) intent on keeping the vision alive. They deserve the highest possible praise for their brilliant work.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A TOUCH OF FANTASY: Wolmer's 2014 repertoire fuses vibrant elements of motion and magic

COLOUR US BEAUTIFUL: The young talents put on rousing, high-energy display.

Cinderella got her prince, Marley magic reigned supreme, and modern dancehall got the final word. The 2014 season of dance (dubbed "Beyond") by the Wolmer's Dance Troupe, a company on the cusp of 25, was an intoxicating celebration, fuelled by eye-popping colour, fairy-tale magic, rhythmic motion and no shortage of youthful exuberance from an army of lithe girls (and a couple of young men) who held us in their thrall for the full two-and-a-half hours.

In keeping with tradition, Artistic Director Barbara McDaniel took the lead on choreography, crafting at least 10 of the programme's twelve works, alongside guest collaborators like Orrette Beckford, Nicholas McPherson, Ayana Graham and Stephanie Smith, whose "My Battle Within," was an unqualified delight, exploring the ubiquitous light-and-dark duality with sophisticated style and ounce of flourish.

Another notable highlight: "Glorious Days," a sweeping spiritual ode that closed the first half, buoyed by a powerful soundtrack of Kurt Carr, Troy Sneed and the harmonious nuns of Sister Act. Working with the Luther Vandross classic "A House Is Not A Home," another McDaniel crowd-pleaser "My Space" provided an emotionally charged slice of domestic bliss with stylish props that served to heighten the work's interpretive feel.
"Land of Dreamers", meanwhile, took on aspects of the Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella fables and turned them on their ears to create a four-movement pastiche steeped in fantasy, melodrama and magical realism.

And because we all wanted our happy ending  not necessarily of the storybook variety  — we found it in "Trapped - In a World of Their Own," a brash and attitude-laden piece that managed to intriguingly capture the energy and excitement of modern Jamaican popular music.

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COMING ON STRONG: Rising actor Marlon Brown zooms into focus in The Prophet

YOUNG AT ART: Brown gets an earful from the fiery Monique Ellis in this scene from the hit comedy.

Ask Marlon Brown how he ended up in the theatrical arts, and he'll unhestatingly tell you the truth: he was drifting in the corporate world until a mentor did him a solid and helped him discover his life's true calling. That was over a decade ago, and Brown has been steady on the acting grind ever since, landing sizeable roles in shows (The Trouble With the Johnsons, Risque) that earned him proper notice and landed him in the pantheon of emerging Jamaican actors who matter.

At 37, having declared he's in it for the long haul, there's no stopping him now. Costarring in The Prophet at the Green Gables Theatre this month, opposite Keith 'Shebada' Ramsey and Garfield Reid, Brown talks to TALLAWAH about characterization, life as a married man, and being a committed student of the acting craft.

TALLAWAH: What is the biggest compliment you've ever received since embarking on your acting career? 
Marlon Brown: I remember a woman came up to me after seeing Risque and told me that she would never ever let me near her daughter. (Laughs). When something like that happens it means you did a really good job in portraying your character on stage. So that's what I always aim for.

TALLAWAH: In The Prophet, you're rather convincing as a lottery scammer with an aggressive mean streak. How does one prepare for a role like that?
M.B.: Living in Montego Bay for about seven years, I was around people who were actually doing it. So I didn't have to go too far to find inspiration.

TALLAWAH: Your character doesn't have the greatest luck with women either. Could you relate?
M.B.: Nah sah. I'm a married man. Two years now, with three kids.

TALLAWAH: Do you consider yourself cocky?
M.B.: No, I actually consider myself new to the industry. Still learning. There's so much to learn as an actor; you never stop learning your craft.

TALLAWAH: Outside of the theatre, where do your interests lie?
M.B.: I write. I have a few scripts that I'm hoping to bring to the stage in the near future. I'm a dad; I'm a husband. I love photography. My wife won't allow me to lay any more sports; she doesn't want me to hurt myself, so I stick to my photography and my writing for now.

TALLAWAH: Let us in on a few details about your formative years.
M.B.: I grew up in the Vineyard Town area of Kingston, attended what was then Vauxhall Secondary, then went on to HEART Academy. In terms of work, I was doing the wrong thing for a while. I couldn't fit into corporate Jamaica and I didn't know what the problem was until I realized I was going in the wrong direction. David Tulloch pointed me toward the stage, and I haven't looked back since.

TALLAWAH: That's quite a story. With your natural acting ability and obvious ambition you might just excel in this fickle business. What do you ultimately hope to accomplish?
M.B.: As an actor, you definitely want to see your work up on the silver screen, so that's where I want to ultimately take my acting career.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

STRANGER THAN FICTION: Author Marlon James sheds light on a tragic chapter in reggae history

IN RETROSPECT: The past figure's prominently in James' ambitious new novel.

"It's epic in every sense... a testament to Mr. James' vaulting ambition and prodigious talent." That is how The New York Times' notoriously acerbic chief book critic Michiko Kakutani describes A Brief History of Seven Killings (One Word Publications), the latest full-length novel to spring from the creative imagination of Jamaica's Marlon James, one of the most distinctive voices leading the ongoing renaissance in "West Indian" literature.

After wowing critics and stirring heated book-club debates with his acclaimed debut John Crow's Devil and the mesmerizing follow-up The Book of Night Women, James is poised to dazzle readers anew when Brief History lands in bookstores on October 16. This go-round the skilled storyteller is drawing on a dark chapter in reggae history to spin a yarn that compellingly marries fact with fiction while tackling truth versus hearsay.

On the third of December 1976, a couple of days before Bob Marley was scheduled to perform at the widely publicized Smile Jamaica Concert, an event put on to help ease the rampant political tensions of the day (weeks before the General Elections), seven West Kingston gunmen stormed Bob's house and opened fire. Much ado was made of the attack that could have snuffed out the superstar's life, but very little about the assailants ever made headlines. What was the end of their story?

Focussing his lens on this whole sordid affair, James assumed the role of an oral biographer, assembling a diverse cast of voices (ghosts, beauty queens, average Joes, you names it) to craft was has amounted to "a compelling novel of monumental scope and ambition." 

As expected, Brief History has been garnering rave reviews from tough critics all over the world, who've largely declared it a triumph. "Upon finishing, the reader will have completed an indispensable and essential history of Jamaica's troubled years. This novel should be required reading," declares Publisher's Weekly. Adds The New York Times' Kakutani, "[Brief History] is like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner."

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THE BELIEVER: Ryan Mark embraces change, empowers himself, and looks to the future

BLUE NOTE: "This is going to be with me for life. There's no turning back," the deejay-turned-minister reflects.

It's a very simple routine he's getting used to. Once the service has drawn to a close and the worshippers have all filed through the door to start their Sunday, Ryan Mark Reynolds makes his way across the stage, gathering up the electrical equipment and other objects to be placed in containers for the journey home.

Sharply turned out in a grey-and-black ensemble and matching accessories, this dashing and extremely tall gentleman could easily pass for your fresh-from-college high-school maths teacher. That is until you cast your eyes across the stage and they come to rest on a vibrant vision-and-mission banner that reminds you that you're a guest in the house of Pure Heart Ministries International, Ryan's new spiritual ministry which convenes here each week — inside the auditorium of the Theatre Place in New Kingston — with a small but growing congregation.

As one of Jamaica's most well-known gospel entertainers, known for rocking concert crowds from Kingston to Negril to Miami, Ryan Mark (over the course of the past decade or so) long established himself as a household name, a musical messenger armed with an arsenal of catchy, soul-stirring tunes and mainstream appeal. Along the way he discovered he had much more to offer his fans and the wider public, particularly the youngsters searching for something meaningful to be a part of. It was only a matter of time before he'd feel compelled to take that proverbial next step. By all accounts, the time has come.

Undertaking an initiative as significant as this could prove daunting to others in his league, but Ryan Mark is a man of adventurous spirit who loves nothing more than to embark on a quest he is certain is being powered by divine guidance. Still, doesn't he feel the least bit pressured to deliver? I wanted to know. "It's not pressuring. I see it as something new that I just have to get used to," he assures me, leaning against the podium from which he delivers his weekly sermon. "If it was up to me, I would just stick with music, but it's not." He smiles. "Taking on the role of a pastor is a huge sacrifice. I am just working in total obedience."

It's just five weeks old but Pure Heart has already started to attract the backing of gospel fraternity heavyweights like Tommy Cowan and Carlene Davis. Even former dancehall starlet Miss Ting, a newly converted Christian, was also in attendance when TALLAWAH paid them a visit recently. As the ministry starts to take shape, Ryan remains absolutely clear about what Pure Heart will go on to ultimately achieve. "My aim is to have a ministry that the rest of the world can recognize," he emphasizes. "I want it to become known for signs and wonders and healings. People are going through such hard times, and I see it as my job to point them in the right direction."
Unsurprisingly, getting to this moment of clarity and focus meant banishing all traces of self-doubt and negative thinking. And, of course, moving past the naysayers and detractors. "For some, they saw this as me taking on a really heavy task, but they were more concerned about if I'm ready for it," Ryan explains. "I am. Definitely. This is the season that God has chosen for the work to begin. So here I am."

One who is absolutely sure he'll succeed is wife of seven years, Dawnette 'Chrissy D' Reynolds, who has already taken on an active role in the new church as praise-and-worship leader. "You'd think this was a sudden transformation for him, but he's been preparing for years now," she tells TALLAWAH, her bright eyes widening. "He's been invited to perform in places like Florida and New York and ended up preaching. He has it in him to accomplish great things. God always uses the simple man to do great things."

In a way, Ryan Mark's new chapter reflects the stark changes being witnessed, not just on the gospel scene but in the wider Jamaican society, where influential figures are becoming increasingly emboldened to channel their star power and clout into projects that will have far-reaching and lasting impact. "Having power is one of the truly great things in life, but how do you use it? For positive or negative?" the minister argues. "I want to use mine to bring hope and empowerment to people. I am all for power and influence, but I'm interested in channelling it through the gospel so that we can bring about the change that we want to see."

Ryan Mark will be the first to assure devoted fans of his music and ardent followers of his recording career that turning his back on the recording studio is not an option. In fact, his newest single "My Papa" is currently seeking heat on the charts and 2015 promises to bring his next as-yet-untitled album. But for the time being, as the journey continues, his primary focus and energy rests on being a committed servant of the Word, raising his fast-growing daughter Sara, being a good husband, and giving thanks for his many blessings.

"It's a a new time, a new season, but everybody still has their role to play. We just have to figure out what God is saying to us," he reflects. He pauses, then stares out into the empty theatre, seemingly collecting his thoughts. "This is going to be with me for life. I think that was one of the scariest things about starting the ministry," he confesses. "But this is it. There is no turning back."

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