Kingston is not Jamaica
Many may not know that life started out for me in Highgate, St Mary. I spent my first six years there, and then in 1988, Mummy saw an ad on TV for Cathi Levy's Little People and Teen Players Club. Kids between the ages of five and 18 were singing and dancing as part of the magic of theatre like she had never seen before. Nothing like that existed in St Mary at the time. Twenty-six years later, still nothing like that exists. Mummy decided there and then that her daughter had to dance.
The rest is history. That very year, because of that ad, we moved to Kingston, and I had the blessing of joining not only Little People, but also Jay Teens Dance Workshop, Jamaica Musical Theatre Company, Father Richard Ho Lung and Friends and many other theatre groups that have shaped who I am today.
I thank my mother every day for making that move, but I readily spot the injustice in it. It's unfair how much Kingston gets that the rest of the island never sees. For those children who live in rural areas, so much of life is home and school and church. Full stop.
I was heartbroken to discover that there were eight theatre spaces in Kingston alone - and two outside. In Kingston, there are Ashe, Edna Manley, Jamaica Youth Theatre Company and Jamaica Musical Theatre Company. And the list goes on. What of the child who lives outside of Kingston? Where do they go to discover and develop their talents?
Take a look at the floor shows that are put on in some on our north coast hotels. They rival those at any other resort location the world over. But many of the performers are either Kingston transplants with theatre backgrounds, or talented people who learn the craft on the job. Surely, we can give them a head start right there in Montego Bay, or in Ocho Rios. The raw talent pool is there.
Off the bat, I can think of five performers (actors, singers and dancers) who have gone abroad and made their marks in Broadway productions either in New York or London. All were products of Kingston-based youth performing-arts groups.
Art is power
I have seen, first-hand, the transformative power of the arts. Alpha Boys' School has changed the lives of hundreds through music. Many of the boys today readily confess that were it not for the musical training they received at that institution, and the full-time careers they have made from that learning, they don't know where they would have been today. Where is the non-Kingston-based institution that passes on the same learning?
Theatre taught me so much.
Time management: I knew I couldn't go to dance class until I had finished my homework. So I did my homework.
It forced me to excel. If my grades were bad, no show that season; so I made sure I aced my subjects.
I learnt to be responsible and take care of my costumes.
I learnt theatre history and music appreciation and how to dance without gyrating my little behind.
The friendships I have made through theatre are deep and lifelong. I have Christmas dinner with people I met on the stage, and today, our mothers are best friends.
Churches try. High schools try, and I applaud them for their efforts. But the level of artistry and technique that is learnt in a performing-arts troupe is unmatched.
I have to give a commendation. Last Saturday night, I spent the evening in Mandeville. The occasion was a dance recital put on by dance teacher and long-time friend (from my Little People days), Jihan Cooke. Eighty-seven young ladies took to the stage and entertained a packed house.
Jihan, in her small corner, is making a difference and sharing with Mandeville a taste of what made our lives better. She is teaching children aged five to 18 modern dance, folk, African and tap, and you could see the girls on that stage beaming with a confidence that comes from performing for an audience.
I look forward to more Jihans and more Cathi Levys sharing the gift of strong performing-arts programmes in every parish. Kingston isn't Jamaica. The country's young talent doesn't only reside there. I shouldn't have had to leave St Mary to learn the things I did. Nor should any other child.
Let's expose our children early to professional theatre. It makes a world of difference in their development. I know it did in mine.