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Heron revels in bad man role - 'Marley' musical ends Sunday in Maryland

Published:Friday | June 12, 2015 | 12:39 AM
Heron as 'Tony Welsh' in Marley.

Award-winning playwright and actor David Heron is celebrating another major career milestone as part of the cast of Marley. The musical based on the life of Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley had its gala opening night at the Baltimore Centerstage Theatre, Maryland, USA, on May 13.

The musical's book is by Kwame Kwei Armah (who also serves as director), with music and lyrics by Bob Marley. Marley is played by You Tube singing sensation Mitchell Brunings of Holland’s The Voice. 

Heron plays the role of former People's National Party (PNP) activist Tony Welsh, who, along with Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) contemporaries Claudie Massop and Tek Life, was instrumental in bringing Marley back to Jamaica for the now famous One Love Peace Concert in 1978. This was after the singer’s self imposed exile to London in the mid-70s.

Marley had retreated to England in late 1976 after being shot at his 56 Hope Road residence, on the eve of the Smile Jamaica Christmas concert and during the run up to the tumultuous 1976 general elections.

The musical examines the personal and political events in and around Marley’s life leading up to the assassination, and his subsequent sojourn in London, as he embarked on what was to become the most artistically productive period of his career.

For Heron, whose recent acting credits include major Shakespearean productions such as Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing, the Marley experience has been a welcome change of pace. It has also proven artistically challenging and professionally rewarding.

“My acting resume had been leaning towards the very classical for the last few years. So to do Marley- which is a modern period piece and my first ever musical, -is an exciting and very different challenge,” he says.

Heron describes his character in the story as somewhat cool and taciturn - a loyal PNP supporter who speaks little, but has a steely willingness to do what he has to for survival.

“In my Shakespearean or other classical roles, the language - the spoken word - has been everything.  With Tony Welsh, it’s how he uses his body that helps inform who he is. His silences speak volumes and he says more with a look or gesture than a half page of dialogue. That’s a very new, more controlled style of performance than I’m used to playing, but Kwame is a brilliant and collaborative director and his help has been invaluable to me,” Heron said.

Heron said Tony Welsh, Tek Life (played by Luke Forbes) and Claude Massop (played by Jamaican John Andrew Morrison), are used as important dramatic devices throughout the story to illustrate the political tensions in Jamaica at the time.

“In the play, Claudie and Tek Life are, of course, unstintingly loyal to the JLP Opposition Leader Edward Seaga, while Tony’s allegiance is unwavering to Prime Minister Michael Manley. But when it mattered they united and called a truce in their communities, then travelled to London to ask Bob to return and help seal the peace with the One Love Concert. There was still a code of honour and respect among them," Heron said.

"And acting those scenes out with Luke, who is of Jamaican parentage, and John Andrew, who is Jamaican like me, as well as Howard Overshown, who portrays Michael Manley, is just incredible. They are all amazing actors and the same can truly be said of the entire cast, nearly 30 strong.”

Heron can still remember growing up in Jamaica during the time in which the show is set, and says some of the memories evoked during the rehearsal process were unsettling.

“I was very young, but I can still remember my parents warning me not to repeat anything political I might hear at home to anyone at school or elsewhere,  because   you could wind up hurt or worse if   the wrong people found out who your parents were voting for," he said.

"My dad taught at Kingston Technical High School (KTHS) in downtown Kingston and I just remember everyone being so fearful all the time that some little incident could flare up and shut the whole city down… It was scary.”

On the nostalgic side however, Heron had done many of the songs in the show before, including Redemption Song, One Love and Three Little Birds,

“I was singing those songs years ago when I first started my performing career with the UWI Singers under Mr. Noel Dexter and Professor Rex Nettleford. And now here I am, doing them all over again. It feels a homecoming- like a part of my life has come full circle. And it’s pretty cool.”

Marley continues at the Baltimore Centerstage Theatre until Sunday.