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Jamaicanising Shakespeare: Students explore the transformative effect of drama in education

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2015 | 12:00 AM
A scene from a Jamaicanised adaptation of the Shakespeare play ‘Macbeth’ by Campion College. The school was one of the seven finalists in the JN Shakespeare Schools’ Championship which ended on September 19 at The Little Theatre in St Andrew.

All the world is indeed Shakespeare's stage. In Jamaica, theatre is a vibrant, growing industry in which writers, producers and actors are being nurtured, and performances promoted to provide a welcome source of entertainment.

Many performers begin as amateurs in school drama clubs, performing locally written or curriculum-prescribed plays, such as Shakespeare's works. Students are schooled in the complexities of his plays in preparation for examinations.

However, despite the designation of British English as the country's official language, some students struggle to reconcile the widely spoken local dialect with Standard English and, therefore, find the Shakespearean 'lingo' a source of even greater bemusement.

Dr Renee Rattray, director of education programmes at the Jamaica National Building Society Foundation, explained the challenges of teaching English language in Jamaica: "Many students are from communities where the local dialect is predominantly spoken. And their modern role models, such as popular musicians and deejays, confine their art to the vernacular. We have also identified a worrying trend, where boys who communicate in Standard English are ridiculed by their peers," she explained.

Notwithstanding, more than 150 students in 14 schools across the country have taken on the additional challenge of 'Jamaicanising' a selection of Shakespeare's works for a national competition, sponsored by the Jamaica National Building Society, which will prepare the wining cast to participate in a similar competition in the United Kingdom in 2016.

These students have mastered Shakespearean tragedies, comedies and histories alike, and have 'shaken and stirred' them into delightful theatrical re-enactments of modern and traditional Jamaican life.

Imagine Puck, the fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the local folk hero, Anancy; or the merchant Shylock as a honey-tongued Rastafarian; or even Macbeth's three witches as saucy dancehall queens, in plays fused with indigenous cultural practices, and set against a backdrop of reggae music.

The JN Shakespeare Schools' Championship, as the local competition is known, is the brainchild of Jamaica-born educator and founder of the United Kingdom-based non-profit 'Generating Genius', Dr Tony Sewell. The competition has attracted students from a mix of urban and rural schools, including some where, traditionally, the arts have been given less attention than vocational subjects.

changes in attitudes

Dr Sewell has been championing the transformative effect of drama in education. His study, conducted with 210 boys and girls across the schools involved in the Championship, indicate palpable changes in attitudes to reading, timekeeping, and school attendance, since preparations started six months ago.

Ninety per cent of the respondents reported increased confidence in articulating their views; and there was a 17 per cent increase in the number of students who stated that their mastery of the English language had increased since their verbal exposure to the plays in the competition.

Dr Sewell noted that Jamaica, with its natural tendency towards comedy, tragedy and irony, is the ideal place for staging Shakespeare's plays. "The rhythm in the language enhances his text, and Jamaican everyday life is a live-action play. Shakespeare would have found Jamaica the ideal landscape for his plays," he commented.

Interestingly, a sizeable percentage of the casts comprise teenage boys, which is remarkable, in a country of marginalised males.

Local theatre professionals were enlisted to mentor the casts and judge the performances. They are led by dramaturge Eugene Williams, who heads the School of Drama at the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts.

This School of Drama has been a nursery for local talent, many of whom have gone on to excel internationally.

Come March 2016, the spotlight will be on a fresh crop of Jamaican talent, high school thespians, 'armed and well prepared', who have been waiting in the wings to 'shake and stir' the global theatre scene.

• Contributed by Lavern Reid, communications consultant.