MAKING HISTORY: Bernard (in the title role) and Jean-Paul Menou (as a reporter) in a scene from the musical.
“Your philosophy is the way you live your life” is a telling line from one of the musical numbers in Garvey: The Musical, the timely and tuneful roots-reggae-rock production by Mona’s University Players, which drew large audiences to the Philip Sherlock Centre this past Heroes’ Weekend. It’s a fitting sentiment in a show that chronicles important highlights in the life of a celebrated activist, Jamaican National Hero and Black consciousness advocate who never shied away from making profound philosophical utterances that encompassed race and class, identity and self-empowerment.
How Marcus Garvey lived his life outside of the public eye, however, has always been a topic of contentious debate, especially given his numerous arrests and implications in such crimes as mail fraud. Was Garvey a spotless man? No. A heroic figure? Certainly, one who’s hard-hitting messages are as resonant and relevant today as when he performed such groundbreaking feats as birthing the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 and ushering in the Black Star Liner movement.
But in Garvey: The Musical we get more intimate glimpses of the man, as seen through the investigative lens of writer-director Michael Holgate, whose Garvey is a flawed soul who has his pride and warrior spirit but who also comes across as a visionary who always knows which side he’s on.
And speaking of spirits, they figure prominently in this piece of experimental, mythic storytelling. Actors like Susie Braham, Desmond Dennis and Rudy Tomlinson stand out as ancestral Orishas who are bent on putting Garvey through the ringer. Andre Bernard, a dynamic soloist with the University Singers, is Garvey, and he commendably rolls with the punches, bringing to the stage a mix of authority, powerful singing and macho moxie.
There are flashbacks to his coming-of-age years (growing up with a tough-love father and a doting mother; finding his courage to fight) and interactions with a series of headstrong characters brought to life by Akeem Mignott, the Pantomine Company’s Derrick Clarke and Alicia Taylor (Dream on Monkey Mountain). Rounding out the supporting cast: Jean-Paul Menou as the no-nonsense J. Edgar Hoover and Michael Sean Harris as W.E.B. DuBois, who makes it clear that Garvey has made a powerful enemy.
The show’s mis-en-scene, which incorporates multiple props and multimedia projections, looks chaotic at times, especially when the flurry of black-clad supporting dancers work their way centrestage. But you hardly mind, given the production’s high edutainment quotient and its utterly fascinating spin on this patriarchal figure that the world is always talking about.
“I always want to create art that is both entertaining and empowering,” Holgate says in his director’s notes, underscoring the power of any good piece of theatre. And though Garvey: The Musical has its faults, you can’t deny its crowd-pleasing exploration of vision, struggle and a man who was committed to meaningful change. Tyrone’s Verdict: B