Wednesday, 14 October 2009

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Wycliffe Bennett on art, his life and his new book

LATE GREAT: Cultural icon Wycliffe Bennett

In my work as a writer and journalist, I have had the good fortune of interviewing some of the most inspirational and highly respected gate-keepers of Jamaican culture over the years. This past March, I sat down with Wycliffe Bennett for a chat at his home in St Andrew, during which he took an inspiring look-back at his remarkable life and work, shared his thoughts on the state of Jamaican theatre and gave exclusive first details on his highly-anticipated new book, The Jamaican Theatre in the 20th Century: Highlights of the Performing Arts (UWI Mona Press), due out later this year or early 2010. In honour of Bennett's work, legacy and warm spirit, I share that interview (“A Legend Reflects”) here with you. It first appeared in the Sunday Observer, April 5.

ON a warm and bright afternoon in mid-March, Wycliffe Bennett is seated at a stunning glass and mahogany table at his home off East King's House Road in St Andrew. Surrounded by additional pieces of exotic furniture and pricey artwork staring back from the walls, Bennett is at ease in a place fit for a king and his queen.

An individual like Wycliffe Bennett deserves nothing but comfort and tranquility after a six-decade-plus career that includes stints in media, the arts and education. For many, Bennett is a regal gentleman and a groundbreaking stalwart who has helped transform the Jamaican cultural landscape with his extraordinary contribution.

But the 86-year-old isn't looking much like royalty today. Even the monarchs among us take a day off. He's wearing a simple dress shirt, grey pants with suspenders and his signature pair of spectacles. His lovely wife, the acclaimed historian and author Dr Hazel Bennett is seated on a sofa a few feet away.

As the smell of lunch being prepared fills the room, Bennett talks enthusiastically and clearly, selecting his words with the utmost precision, about the work he's done, the many doors he's opened and the countless lives he's changed over the years. Make that decades, because a talk with a man like Wycliffe Bennett is a journey through time. His voice is warm and wise, and you never forget you're having a conversation with a cultural pioneer, a living legend.

"Life has been good to me. I've had wonderful relatives, friends and teachers who taught me manners, integrity and to love other human beings. Those lessons have guided me throughout my entire life," he says. "I owe a great deal to the people I've met in theatre like Derek Walcott and Rex Nettleford. I blossomed in theatre in that company, and they left an indelible impression on me. My life has always been about being part of a team."

The Measure Of A Man

Many who know and have worked with Wycliffe Bennett will tell you that he has left an indelible impression on them, whether during his tenure as General Manager of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission, pioneering organizer of the National Arts Festival, head of the Creative Production and Training Centre (CPTC), Chairman of the Jamaica Drama League, theatre director and producer or in one of his voice and speech classes.

"So many of us owe the sustenance of our theatrical careers to [Bennett]. He always found ways to give us, struggling actors work," actress and broadcaster Fae Ellington told the Courtleigh Auditorium at last Tuesday's Actor Boy Awards.

It's a familiar experience for Bennett to hear people sing his praises. In many ways, he can be considered extraordinary for his humility and a deep simplicity that should never be mistaken for ordinariness.

"I have enjoyed working for the Jamaican people," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "My work as a public servant is among my proudest accomplishments. Looking back, the most important part of my work was done without pay. It was a very rewarding time though. I enjoyed the voluntary work. It was food for my soul. It's where my energy came from," notes Bennett, who worked in a few government ministries and agencies in the 1940s and decades later, cultivating a knack for staging landmark cultural events.

Adds Bennett: "One of my fondest memories is working with Sir Hugh Foote organizing the Tercentenary Celebrations [in 1955] which was produced to mark our three hundred years under British rule."

But most dear to Bennett's heart are his pioneering efforts in the National Festival movement, the theatrical circle and the wider arts community. That's why he's convinced that the continued preservation of the arts in Jamaica will bring about positive change in our social climate.

"The arts are a way for us as Jamaicans to enhance our capacity to forward ourselves onto the cutting edge. Graciousness, self-esteem and dignity are what we need for a better Jamaica and the arts can provide that. We must also acknowledge the important lessons we get from each other," he points out.

Chronicling Our Stories

In any case, Bennett, Chairman Emeritus of the Ward Theatre Foundation, says society must honour and support the torch-bearers in our arts community who are carrying on the legacy of the pioneers, particularly in the realm of theatre.

"We absolutely must give praise to those who are carrying Jamaican theatre and the performing arts on their backs, and presenting it to the world with consummate ease," Bennett notes. "I think playwrights like [Basil] Dawkins, [Patrick] Brown and the up-and-comers have tremendous potential. They know the theatre and they know what they are trying to do. They have authenticity."

A retired educator (who earned a reputation for commanding the highest level of discipline in his voice and speech classes), Bennett puts forward that art education in Jamaican schools is crucial at this time in the country's delicate history.
"[Art] refines the minds of children. They are sensitized to something good and beautiful instead of the violence they are often faced with," Bennett stresses. "It teaches them to respect their colleagues and their elders, and how to produce things of substance and value."

It is for this reason, among others, that Bennett is gearing up to release
The Jamaican Theatre in the 20th Century: Highlights of The Performing Arts (UWI Mona Press), which he co-authored with his wife. The book, which will be launched later this year, is a rich and handsome collector's volume, which will boast photos of theatrical performances in Jamaica, set designs, art and architecture, some dating as far back as the 1600s.

"Professor Errol Hill and I had been doing research for this book for a very long time. I have been collecting data for the past 60 years on theatre and the arts in Jamaica. I am very pleased that Jamaicans will finally get to enjoy it when it is launched later in the year," says Bennett.

The impending release aside, the creative visionary is most proud of the collaborative work he did on the book with his wife, who is equally thrilled that the long-awaited collector's item will soon be available to the public.

"We live together, we research together, and we quarrel together. It was very important for us to work together on this project," says Bennett, beaming with pride.
Interjects Hazel: "All the technical work fell on me, but it was a great experience working on the book together."

A Love Supreme

The devotion that Wycliffe Bennett and Hazel Bennett share is no ordinary love. They are not just two people who've been married for much of their adult lives; they are best friends, life partners, soulmates who seem to pay extra special attention to the vow of 'for better or worse'. Their unique bond is demonstrated everywhere from our two-hour interview at their swanky St Andrew home to the podium at the recent Actor Boy Awards, where Bennett was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Where is my wife? She can't be down there," Bennett remarked during his acceptance speech. "We are co-equals, we are life partners. She is the reason for much of my success," he said, to loud cheers and applause from the audience.

Bennett has received many honours for his work in the arts, including the National Order of Distinction (Commander Class), the Silver Musgrave Medal and the Centenary Medal from the Institute of Jamaica. And while, he has become accustomed to the limelight, he accepts the praise and accolades wholeheartedly.

At one point during our conversation at his home, weeks before the Actor Boy Awards, I ask how it feels to be recognized in such a major way by the local theatre community.

"I am very pleased. I chose Louise Bennett to be the very first recipient of the honorary award 19 years ago, and now it is my turn already," he responded, laughing at the idea of filling a spot once occupied by the late great Miss Lou. "I am really grateful for the recognition. It is an acknowledgement of my work and my contribution."

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