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From the Ward to TV - Gleaner tracks thespians at every stage

Published:Monday | August 18, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Barbara Gloudon
Melita Samuels (left) and Christopher 'Johnny' Daley.
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Davina Henry, Staff Reporter

Theatre pioneers Greta and Henry Fowler, Orford St John and Sam Hilary paved the way in Jamaica for the National Pantomime, an adaptation of staged music and drama originated in Britain.

The Gleaner has consistently played a pivotal role in highlighting the magic of Pantomime and bringing to national attention the work of early playwrights and actors. This was done through stories on the early productions at the Ward Theatre, downtown Kingston, before the Pantomime moved to the Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue, where the curtains still go up religiously every Boxing Day.

The first Pantomime took place from December 19-21, 1912, the same year the then opulent Ward Theatre was constructed. The first production was Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, staged by the Amateur Dramatic Club of Kingston. The Gleaner advertisement noted that the costumes were identical to those used at London's Savoy. Tickets were sold at Times Store on King Street at four shillings for dress circle and two shillings for the gallery.

The first Pantomime at the Little Theatre was Jack and the Beanstalk in 1941. It is important to note that the first works of British origin centred on characters such as Beauty and the Beast, Pandora's Box and Aladdin, all European concepts.

Later, with writers such as The Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley, Ranny Williams and Barbara Gloudon, and directors such as Noel Vaz, Lloyd Reckord and Maurice Harty, European folklore gave way to vibrant tales of the Caribbean, with dialogue in Patois and humour reflecting the region's robust sense of comedy. The National Pantomime therefore became 'Jamaicanised', incorporating kumina, reggae and, later, dancehall music .

This direction evolved into productions such as Jamaica Way, Carib Gold and Queenie's Daughter. The Gleaner carried a full- or half-page review of every Pantomime up to the most recent, The Golden Maccafat, which closed in April this year.

By publishing pictures, interviews and reviews, The Gleaner has also covered the development and achievements of the National Dance Theatre Company, Jamaican Folk Singers and Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, the last established in 1963 and well known for its annual national competitions.

Producers and writers such as Ralph Holness, Lenford Salmon, Pablo Hoilett, Barry Reckord and Paul Beale have been recognised in various ways by The Gleaner, which has published reviews which provide access to those unable to attend the events.

A new generation of playwrights' contribution to Jamaican theatre was an added dimension to the craft, satisfying those searching for comedy that depicted particular facets of the Jamaican life. It was called roots theatre and Aaah Bwoy, Scandal, Mama Man, Unda Mi Nose and As Yuh Si Mi Gimme were some of the plays which swept the country.

Then, especially through the early 1990s and onwards, the doors opened for home-grown theatre on Jamaican television. Weekly offerings in the form of Lime Tree Lane, with Dorothy Cunningham and Christopher 'Johnny' Daley, among other actors, engaged Jamaicans. There was also Oliver Samuels in Oliver Yuh Large and Sarge in Charge, along with Volier Johnson in Claffy and Glen 'Titus' Campbell in Titus in Town.

These productions, and others, provided an avenue for those who wanted the drama of the theatre, but preferred to stay at home to watch.

Creator and director of Lime Tree Lane, Melita Samuels, was often featured in The Gleaner between 1988 and 1997 when the series was aired on JBC TV (now Television Jamaica).

Since 2000 to present, the Jamaican audience has been fed a steady diet of theatrical productions, many times running concurrently. The Gleaner has remained the main print source through which readers can follow, examine or relive excerpts from each production.

The action has not been solely on the stage, as one of the most significant developments in Jamaican theatre has been the establishment of the Jamaica Association of Dramatic Artists and the setting up of the Actor Boy Awards.

In more recent years, Jamaican theatre lovers have come to appreciate the latest crop of thespians such as Camille Davis, Courtney Wilson, Andrea 'Delcita' Wright, Garfield 'Bad Bwoy Trevor' Reid and Keith 'Shebada' Ramsay, among many others. Writers such as Aston Cooke, Patrick Brown and Paul O. Beale have pushed boundaries, with some writers delivering social commentary in a way which resonates well with the current generation.