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Tribe Sankofa highlights issue of police brutality in new play

Published:Sunday | September 6, 2015 | 9:00 AMShereita Grizzle
Fabian Thomas (left) and Althea Hewitt of Tribe Sankofa.
Tribe Sankofa at a previous staging of the Gungo Walk Festival, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
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When the story of Mario Deane first broke last year, it caught the attention of numerous Jamaicans. Many were outraged by the circumstances surrounding Deane's death after it was alleged that he was brutally beaten while in police custody. Countless interviews were conducted and several investigations opened, but still, many questions have been left unanswered. The story of Mario Deane, and countless others like him, not only piqued the interest of poet and writer Fabian Thomas, but it also inspired him to put pen to paper, and the result is a theatrical production titled Black Bodies.

The play, which opened last week at Ashe's Vibes Theatre on Cargill Avenue, is a telling tale. It uses the creative arts to not only highlight the stories of individuals who have died at the hands of law enforcers, but also serves to honour their memories. Thomas' performing arts group, Tribe Sankofa, brings the stories of Vanessa Kirkland, Jhaneel Goulbourne, Michael Gayle, and Mario Deane to life again through song, dance, and poetry. Thomas revealed that he was drawn to the stories of persons who died at the hands of the police because he wanted to know more about the people behind the stories. Thomas, who serves as the producer and director of the play, told The Sunday Gleaner that although the play opened just last week, the idea for the production is over a year old. "I started thinking about the concept and idea about a year ago but didn't start writing until after discussions with the cast," he explained. "We researched, became familiar with the stories, shared how we felt about each story, and then brainstormed ideas about staging. We used improvisation and did creative sessions, as well as writing exercises before everything came together."

The director, who is also known for his poetic endeavours, said he titled the production Black Bodies to bring across the damage done to the bodies of the victims juxtaposed with the value and beauty of black bodies. With the storyline ready, the title sorted, and the cast selected, Thomas was ready to debut his masterpiece. However, his plans were halted when he encountered problems with getting a venue to host the show. "It was a bit hard to secure a venue to stage the production," he said. "We were originally slated to be at Vibes Theatre in May, but the production that was there did an extended run. That didn't bother us much, though, because it actually worked in our favour since we had more time to rehearse, fine-tune, and solidify the piece."

Finding a venue

However, with the challenge of securing a venue resolved, the play encountered more difficulties as the problem of funding arose. Thomas disclosed that the production almost had to postpone its opening show due to the lack of funding. "The challenge that almost affected our opening was money or funding. We were not able to pay the required deposit in full to secure the Vibes Theatre, but we were able to come to an agreement that allowed us to open as planned," he said.

Despite the obstacles faced along the way, Thomas described the journey as wonderful. "It has been a wonderful journey. Tribe Sankofa is much more than a performing arts collective; we are a family," he said. "The members of Tribe Sankofa who make up the cast and crew, our spiritual adviser Taitu Heron, and Susan Goffe from JFJ (Jamaicans for Justice), who helped us with research and details of some of the Jamaican cases, all helped to make the production a success."

Thomas revealed that after the play has its final run in Jamaica, he hopes to have it tour the region and other parts of the world.

shereita.grizzle@gleanerjm.com