Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Why Venus is the season's must-see + Hefty star power elevates Destiny

FULL HOUSE: These days well-made and worthwhile Jamaican movies are few and far between, and when they do appear they often come laden with sketchy acting talent plucked from all over. Jeremy Whittaker's coming-of-age tale Destiny is the latest of the lot, but thankfully the talents that get showcased are more quality than questionable. Having long shown that his gifts go further than the recording studio (he did a commendable job in 2006's Amen Corner at Centrestage), Chris Martin (sharing most of his scenes with female lead Karian Sang) makes ample use of the opportunities he gets to shine, displaying a laid-back natural style we don't always get to see in his music videos. With a film role now under his belt and an upcoming album from VP Records, we're intrigued to see what Chris will do next. And speaking of familiar faces, who knew Spice could act? Providing much comic relief as the no-nonsense baby mama intent on securing her young son's inheritance, the dancehall diva delivers a fierceness that could catch the eye of serious casting directors. Meanwhile, some of theatre's finest help to balance things out in the film. Munair Zacca banks a hefty chunk of screen time as a high-powered attorney specializing in results; Makeda Solomon turns on the waterworks as Martin's emotionally fragile big sis, and it was a real hoot to see Noelle Kerr bring the crazy and Nadean Rawlins decked out in full officer gear making a cameo as a traffic cop. Talk about playing against type! And, as I stated in my full-length review of the film (read it here), Sabrina Colie, who play's Sang's street-smart cuz Mystic, is a gem of a discovery who deserves to be better known. 

PLAY ON: Venus has everything a great play should: humour, spectacle, brilliant dialogue and puts forward solid arguments about humanity, race and class. But bringing it all together is perhaps the most important ingredient of all — sharp, memorable performances that keep audiences enthralled. This latest School of Drama major production absolutely satisfies. Buoyed by the sheer manic energy of their supporting players, Venus' trio of lead actresses deliver such impassioned work on the stage that you quickly forget you're watching students who are still studying the acting craft. In other words, the girls outshine the boys in this one. I'm talking about Eden Gibson (who brings such resolve and remarkable poise to the titular role), Danielle Jones (the play's antsy narrator who's job it is to explain the story's wider historical context and the more complex parlances) and, in a rollicking combo of the two, Samantha Thompson, as a controlling mother hen who is all about her coins. (Think Queen Latifah's Mama Morton in Chicago). As much as TALLAWAH is always pleased when the School of Drama shines the spotlight on original Jamaican works, bold pieces with universal appeal, very much like this Suzan-Lori Parks masterpiece, are always welcome. Venus is on again this coming weekend at the Dennis Scott Theatre, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you go see it. 

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BOOK WE LIKE: Ode to Miss Lou puts a refreshing spin on our legacy and language

COVER TO COVER: Davis' book inspires reflection on our greatest cultural heroine.

A breezy new pageturner for culture buffs and collectors is Ode to Miss Lou: From the Soul of Dr. Sue (Words 2 Print Media Group) by Susan Lycett Davis Ed.D, which pays humorous and heartfelt tribute to the memory and legacy of Louise Bennett Coverley.

In some 50 poems honouring what the late folklorist gave us, the island that birthed her, and our native tongue, Davis delivers witty and clever verse that not only inspire reflection but manage to speak more broadly about who we've become as a people and where we are heading triumphantly, as we look to the next 50 years and beyond.

Among the highlights "Mek Patois Reign", "Now-a-days Hairdresser" and "I Am Jamaica" — sturdy and well-crafted pieces that capture fascinating aspects of island life. How blessed we are as a people is what you'll think about while reading Ode to Miss Lou.

But don't just take my word for it. Comedy king Oliver Samuels, one of our living legends who knew Miss Lou best, delivers the introduction and endorsements come from icons like Easton Lee. "Those of us who have been influenced directly by the Hon. Miss Lou, as well as Jamaicans everywhere, owe her our gratitude. She opened our eyes and our ears to what's truly and uniquely Jamaican," Lee says. "So Dr. Sue, we welcome this new book and companion CD that so radiantly capture the spirit and essence of Miss Lou."

> For more on Davis and her work, visit

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ON THE RECORD: Carlene Davis reflects on her latest project — and finding inner peace

GOLDEN NOTES: "It's been five years in the making," the songstress says of her bold new album.

One of Carlene Davis' favourite tracks on her new album, Dripping Blood, is "All About You," a poignant collabo with her talented and gorgeous daughter Naomi. But this is not the first time the mother-daughter pair have teamed up to create musical magic. As it turns out, Naomi has appeared on quite a few tracks in her mom's vast catalogue and even joined her on tour to share the stage. With the all-grown-up Naomi having emerged as fierce solo star on her own, could a family double act be on the horizon?

At her recent album launch at Redbones in St. Andrew, Davis hinted to TALLAWAH that the twosome have been busy cooking up something together. "We started doing some stuff in the studio a while back," Davis confided. "But she's in Canada now pursuing some advanced studies, so hopefully when she comes home for Christmas we can continue where we left off."

For Carlene Davis, an artist whose renown precedes her, album number 10 feels like a new beginning in the creative sense. "I just feel very relieved that people are finally getting to hear it," she admits. "It's been five years of going at it. Sometimes I get very critical of myself, but while working on the album there came a point where I just left it alone and said, God, it's over to you."

That sort of perfectionist streak has borne irresistible fruit for Davis in the past, and Dripping Blood continues her winning streak. Equal parts reflective and energetically rousing, it's a spirit-lifting record which yields several repeat-worthy highlights. (Be on the look out for the full album review.) 

But what's up with the album's title? "A lot of people don't like to go there," Davis observes, referring to the strong, visceral imagery. "But it's real, and we need to declare that the blood of Jesus has already been shed for us so that we can be forgiven of all our sins, all of our pain." She continues, "When you move into that wisdom and feeling of purpose amazing things happen." 

> Launch Report: Davis and friends celebrate new album at Redbones

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Monday, October 27, 2014

PLAY TIME: Venus weaves a satisfying blend of satire, history and spectacle

AIN'T I A WOMAN? Eden Gibson in a star-making turn as the Venus Hottentot. Below,  another scene from the play.

If there's one thing audiences love more than spectacle it's scandal. You get healthy servings of both in Venus, the School of Drama's latest theatrical offering based on the acclaimed play by Suzan-Lori Parks, who created history in 2002 when she became the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for Topdog/Underdog).

Alongside the scandal, the spectacle and the occasional show-stopping sizzle, it's history of different stripe that plays out in Venus, which spins the based-on-real-life-events story of Sarah Saartjie Baartman, who is 1810 is practically kidnapped from her native South Africa and taken to London (and later Paris) to be showcased as an oddity. You see, Venus (later branded the Venus Hottentot) is no ordinary girl, blessed as she is with an enormously plump derriere that demands more than a double take. It's quite an asset. As Mother Showman (a superb Samantha Thompson), who runs the "freak show" where men come to view and ogle Venus for a fee, points out, "You are a native Negro with a remarkable spanker they pay to see."

As one can imagine, it takes immeasurable willpower and courage for Venus (played with splendid conviction by Eden Gibson) to maintain her sense of dignity in the face of the physical abuse and mental anguish heaped on her. But at her core, Venus proves she's more goddess than doormat, and this becomes especially obvious when she encounters and is seduced by The Baron Docteur/The Man (Shamar Bruce) who offers to rescue her from her terrible fate. But can he ultimately save her from herself? In any case, it's a serious case of "the kindness of strangers" that we witness, and it's a perfect plot point that Lori-Parks drives home loud and clear.
A fantastic storyteller with a flair for the dramatic, humour and satire, the playwright succeeds in fashioning a hugely entertaining piece of writing for the theatre (and history class) out of Sarah's tragic true story — imbued with a sense of empathy and respect for what she went through as girl who is robbed of her innocence just as she was discovering that it's hers to lose. Venus also boasts a solid narrative framework, fair lighting and a decent set, but the play's overarching carnival motif becomes a tad tedious after a while.

Still, director Alude Mahali manages to give this eye-opening tale a deft rendering, eliciting committed performances from the leads (kudos to Thompson and Danielle Jones as the Negro Resurrectionist) and chorus members. As the beleaguered Venus, Gibson proves she's a gem-in-the-making, rendering her monologues with emotional precision — even when delivering impossible lines like, "To hide your shame is evil. I show mine. Want to see?" Tyrone's Verdict: B+

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LION IN WINTER: Musgrave gold medallist Anthony Winkler on aging, the writing life, and his next book

STAGE PRESENCE: Winkler accepting his plaque citation from Custos Marigold Harding at the IOJ-hosted ceremony.

Though he now walks with a limp and his speech is slightly slurred, novelist Anthony Winkler's mind is as razor-sharp as ever. The celebrated 73-year-old author of such Jamaican classics as The Painted Canoe, The Lunatic, and 2013's award-winning and genre-bending historical narrative God Carlos was among the honorees bestowed with a gold Musgrave medal this past Wednesday at the Institute of Jamaica, where the master storyteller spoke with TALLAWAH about making his contribution to the island's literary culture, his (very) eventful Cornwall College years, and how he really feels about his legacy and growing older.

TALLAWAH: Marlon James says you are our Mark Twain. How do you feel about that kind of comparison?
Anthony Winkler: That's his opinion, but Mark Twain was a very good writer, so to be compared to him is a big honour.

TALLAWAH: In your experience, does storytelling get easier you grow older?
A.W.: For me, as you get older, you get less able to work as hard as you used to. That's about it.

TALLAWAH: Do you look back on your Jamaican childhood with fondness. I'm referring especially to your Cornwall College days.
A.W.: My Cornwall College days were very difficult. I was expelled over refusing to take caning. Cornwall College had a culture of bullying and they had imitated the Englishman to an excess. The headmaster said, 'Winkler, I'm going to have to cane you' and I said, 'Well, we're going to have to fight'. And he said, 'Well, leave the college then.' So I was expelled.

TALLAWAH: Countless esteemed Jamaican authors look to you as an influence. Who rank among the Jamaican writers you've always saluted?
A.W.: We have produced some very good writers, and I admire some of them like Vic Reid. He's not very well-known nowadays, but he wrote The Leopard, which I think is a masterpiece.

TALLAWAH: What are you reading now?
A.W.: I'm reading up on the 16th century. I'm writing a book about God and about meeting God.

TALLAWAH: So how's that going?
A.W.: I can't tell you till I'm finished. (Laughs).

TALLAWAH: Among all your novels do you have a favourite?
A.W.: The Painted Canoe. My first book; my baby. I worked hard on it. I wrote it around my very tight schedule at Moneague Teachers' College. I would come home in the night after my evening classes, and I'd pick up the typewriter and begin to write. And this went on for two years. Some days I was so tired I could hardly get into the room.

TALLAWAH: So what do you want your legacy to be ultimately?
A.W.: I don't think much about my legacy. I just hope that when I leave this earth, they'll say, 'Well, he tried his best.'

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Pierre LeMaire won't direct 2014 pantomime + Cherry Natural readies poetry collection + JMTC planning big summer splash

REVIVAL MODE: Hard to believe, but the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company (JMTC) hasn't put on a major production since 2009's Dreamgirls, while their younger counterparts over at Jamaica Junior Theatre continue to churn them out in rapid succession, mounting in recent times crowd-pleasers like Aladdin and Alice. But, as it turns out, the seniors refuse to be outshone and are presently getting their mojo back. Enter David Tulloch, who has been appointed the JMTC's new Artistic Director — and he means business. First up on the agenda in "reviving" the troupe is overseeing the crafting of At the Barricades, a loose adaptation of Les Miserables, scheduled to take the theatre world by storm next summer. "I'm in the hot seat," the super-busy director tells TALLAWAH. No kidding. Meanwhile, the pace-setting junior theatre is maintaining their lead with the much-anticipated Nesta's Rock (currently in rehearsals), chronicling aspects of the Bob Marley story, set to premiere in Kingston in January. 

LYRICAL WARRIOR: You can say this for Cherry Natural: she's ever embarking on bold new pursuits as she keeps the creative juices flowing. The outspoken poet-performer known for her hard-hitting lyrics and passionate performances, informs TALLAWAH that a to-be-published collection of her poems is well in the works. Though the release date is yet to be decided on, the anthology could be headed to bookstores by early 2015. Cherry Natural's last release, the hit CD Intellectual Bad Gal, featured rousing fan favourites like "Long Time Poets Ah Write" and "Fight Back." 

ON THE MOVE: MoBay's Fairfield Theatre community has received an injection of vibrant new blood, with the arrival of actors/codirectors Nadean Rawlins and Suzanne Beadle — both of whom we hear now live and work in the west. Already the ladies' collaborative efforts have borne fruit, thanks to the success of their version of Her Last Cry (running through month-end), Dahlia Harris' provocative domestic drama, which had a sold-out run in Kingston a few months ago, with a cast including Harris herself and Tesfa Edwards, as a couple whose rocky marriage takes a violent turn..... In other theatre news, Pierre LeMaire says he will not be calling the shots on set for this year's LTM National Pantomime, Princess and Boonoonoonoos. Without going into details in his recent chat with TALLAWAH, the director (who helmed last season's The Golden Macca Fat), pointed to "creative differences" among the factors influencing his decision. 

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JMTC'S Doug Bennett: Nesta's Rock, the Marley musical, will be 'great fun'

SUPER DAD: Bennett and daughters Fiona and Katrina sharing a proud family moment at King's House. Below, a Bob Marley art sketch.

For the 85-year-old Doug Bennett, it would seem that his life in the theatre has come full circle yet continues to flourish. Lately, the Jamaica Junior Theatre Company, which he founded back in the eighties as a companion troupe to the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company (and continues to serve as Chairman), is hard at work, aiming to create a masterpiece with their forthcoming 2015 show, Nesta's Rock, debuting in January.

The biggest thrill for Bennett about the whole thing is not just in getting to bring this thoroughly modern and original musical production about the young Bob Marley to Jamaican audiences, but in the opportunity for the company to team up with Tuff Gong International and, by extension, the Marley clan. "We are all delighted that the JMTC is partnering with them," Bennett tells TALLAWAH. "They had seen what a very fine job we made of Aladdin, and when they saw that they invited us to join with them in sort of recognizing Bob Marley as a youngster."

Of course, Bob's meteoric rise from humble beginnings in Nine Mile and Trench Town to global superstardom will figure heavily in the story and is a genius idea for a show, but the aim, the Chairman emphasizes, is to mine something deeper.

"It's not just about him being a youngster but about the sort of life he led and how he solved his problems with music. That's the thinking behind it," explains Bennett, later pointing out that Nesta's Rock will mark the company's 157th production and will draw on the combined efforts of the enthusiastic junior theatre actors, singers and dancers and their senior JMTC counterparts. "I think it's going to be great fun. The cast is on a very hard rehearsal schedule and the performers are getting deeper and deeper into it."

Green-lighting a Bob Marley musical aside, the highlight of Doug Bennett's year has got to be the National Order of Distinction (Commander Class) he was presented with at King's House earlier this week, while getting to share the grand moment with the two people dearest to his heart — daughters Fiona Machado and Katrina Marzouca. "It means a great deal to me because I've spent a lot of time in theatre, and I've seen the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company build up theatre in Jamaica for both the adults and the youngsters," he reflects. "We've given a great deal of money to charity, we've won a lot of awards, but what's truly wonderful is what we've been able to create for the young people." 

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