King returns with Night Work
I asked Hugh King: "Why did you leave theatre 20 or so years ago and why have you returned?"
He replied: "The short answer is Jesus Christ."
King was one of Jamaica's most successful theatre practitioners in the 1970s and 1980s. Working as playwright, producer and actor (and, outside of theatre, broadcaster) he was able to buy a house in Beverly Hills and several cars.
However, he left the theatre scene in Jamaica to work in London, we heard. That also suddenly stopped and King 'went missing' for about a dozen years.
Last week, just before a rehearsal of his play Night Work, which was scheduled to open last night at The Theatre Place, New Kingston, I spoke to him about the disappearances. King's story was passing strange.
Interestingly, it started with a telephone call from my uncle, the actor/producer/director Lloyd Reckord.
King said: "In the late 1980s, Mr Reckord saw my play Body Moves - which had had over 150 consecutive performances at the Barn Theatre - and liked it. He later called me and said he had approached a bank with the proposal and it was willing to underwrite the entire cost of producing the play as a film. (He asked) Was I interested?"
Laughing, King continued: "I told him sure. He asked me to do a screenplay of the stage play and I said I'd get working on it straight away. And quick, quick we were into rehearsals with a cast that included Rosie Murray, Ronald Goshop and Keith Noel. It was filmed in no time and shortly after Lloyd called me to say he had secured a deal with Channel 4 television in London to show the movie in prime time."
The lightning speed of King's summary continued as he spoke of what he called the "groundbreaking achievement" of the Channel 4 showing. "It was something that had never been done before by a black company," he assured me.
On the back of Body Moves' success in London, King was invited by the city's Lambeth Council to produce plays there. He then sold or gave away his house and cars in Jamaica and migrated to the United Kingdom in 1988. He said it was part of a spiritual journey.
"I became a monk. Though I did not live in a monastery I followed the other vows, including the vow of celibacy which is still in force. I haven't had sex for more than 20 years," King said. He laughed and said "that was a tough one."
In London, he produced a number of his plays. The first was Undercover Lover, another play that had had great success at the Barn Theatre in Kingston. It was followed by Night Work, then Greasy Spoon.
"Funnily enough, we never performed Body Moves as a play in London," King said.
Around 1996, King said, "lots of stuff happened. I had gotten baptised fully. I have been a Christian all my life. I was brought up in the church, the Brethren faith. But like many who were baptised as boys I went, as they say, into a far country. So my official baptism as an adult was around that time."
"There followed a seismic shift away from theatre into religious life and academia. I read for my first degree in sociology at the University of London, got upper second-class honours and moved from that to a master's in media and communication. Then I was accepted for three different PhDs - in sociology, in English and in theatre."
Though he did the necessary work, King did not get a chance to present it to the university authorities. During what he called "various encounters with the Lord" he had many "extraordinarily painful experiences."
Once, while kneeling in his prayer room, King asked the Lord to communicate with him by way of an unmistakable sign. According to King, the Lord told him to go to the kitchen window and look over into Burgess Park across the road.
In the park, he saw some young men with large placards. Put together, they formed the word "communicating" - which was what he had been talking to Jesus about.
King said further conversation with the Lord resulted in him returning to Jamaica in 2003 to live like a Trappist monk. In addition to celibacy, other vows he has been obeying relate to poverty, living in seclusion and eating what he grows. Living in the hills of St Catherine, King has been eating "lots of yam, coco, banana, callaloo and ackee."
"You look very healthy," I said. He laughed and replied: "Maybe because of the diet."
"Well, I've heard why you left the world, but why are you back?" I asked. King replied: "The message came that it was time for me to move from the mountains to come back into 'civilisation' as it were." After various signs - which he insists he got from the universe - King was convinced that the message was genuine.
When he contacted an old friend, director and theatre proprietor Pablo Hoilett with the suggestion that they produce Night Work, he found that Hoilett had recently been thinking about doing so. The problem was neither had a script of the play.
"So Pablo asked me how long it would take to rewrite the script," King said. "I told him to give me a week." Using pencil and paper King rewrote the play from memory. 'It's amazing how the things just started coming back," he said.
"Pablo came for the script, typed it up and gave me a copy," King continued. "We corrected and revised it page by page over the phone. Then he got a cast together, set up a reading and here we are."
Night Work features King as Paul Coxmann; Grace Ann Watson as his wife Mary Coxmann; Zandriann Maye as Jenny, a prostitute; Joshua Tomlin as policeman and businessman Mr Byron; and Omar Miller as a gay youth, Bogus.