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From academic article to stage - Heap explains making 'Catherine Mulgrave - an African Odyssey'

Published:Friday | May 27, 2016 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord
Dr Brian Heap
Cadine Hall (left), Makeda Solomon (second left), Paul Issa (centre), Hilary Nicholson (second right) and Nadean Rawlins in ‘Catherine Mulgrave – an African Odyssey’.
Catherine Mulgrave’s family poses for a photo. Catherine (played by Nadean Rawlins) is third from left.
Three frightened abducted children portrayed by Nadean Rawlins (left), Cadine Hall (centre) and Makeda Solomon in ‘Catherine Mulgrave – An African Odyssey.
Three frightened abducted children portrayed by Nadean Rawlins (left), Cadine Hall (centre) and Makeda Solomon in ‘Catherine Mulgrave – an African Odyssey’.
Catherine Mulgrave, played by Nadean Rawlins, as a bride.

There is a lot to learn from Catherine Mulgrave - an African Odyssey, now playing at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA). University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. In four and a half months it was transformed from magazine article into full-blown stage production.

Dr Brian Heap who, "devised and directed" the staging, told me it started with his showing the University Players a Jamaica Journal article by Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis about the remarkable life of the 19th Century African-Jamaican woman Catherine Mulgrave and saying to them, "I want to do a play about this."

"Where's the script?" they asked.

He promised to write one after they had, "talked a bit about it". Heap and the cast members also did a lot of research (much of it online) and consulted with Warner-Lewis, Dr James Mills (about the Ga language). Jennifer Mason (about Portuguese), Quindell Ferguson (about costumes) and Michael-Sean Harris (who wrote original music), among others.

After discussions and improvisations Heap went wrote portions of the script, returned to the actors, got more critique and rewrote. While this was happening, Heap was directing the actors.

"I think one of my main reasons for doing the play is to encourage people to engage with the past, with the history of Jamaica and the Caribbean and, as a result, maybe engage with Africa. We have learnt so much as a company of actors," Heap said

Over the past two weekends audiences have been learning about the little Lunadan girl who, with her sister and brother, were abducted in 1833 and put about a slave ship bound for Havana. After the ship was wrecked on Jamaica's south coast the three were taken in and adopted by then Governor Henry Phipps, the Earl of Mulgrave, and his wife, Maria, Countess of Mulgrave.

Educated - albeit briefly - as a teacher at the Mico Institute, Catherine later became a missionary in West Africa, marrying twice and having five children. She died in 1891, having devoted much of her life to educating girls.

The production features excellent acting by Nadean Rawlins as Catherine and Jean-Paul Menou, Hilary Nicholson, Paul Issa, Makeda Solomon, Michael-Sean Harris, Cadine Hall, Carl Davis and Mikhail Samuels in multiple roles. Heap's set in multiple sections and Ferguson's costumes are evocative of the period and get suitably atmospheric lighting from Ayisha Robinson.

There are weaknesses, especially in the plotting (the dramatic juxtaposition of the incidents of the story), where the flashbacks and flash forwards can become confusing. Many of the usual ingredients of a drama are missing like "rising action" (playwriting jargon for the intensification of suspense as the story moves forward), multifaceted characters (Catherine is the exception) and a strong climax.

That is not the say the story lacks interest. It is fascinating not because of a clever plot, but because it is true. Said Heap: "The fact that Catherine set up a girls' school in the 19th Century and was committed to educating young women is very important. Up to that point education for girls had been resisted. Even in Britain you didn't have the first women going to university till about the late 19th Century."

He pointed out that Catherine's is just one story out of "hundreds and hundreds [in Jamaica's history] that need to be told." They are inspirational stories "of resilience and resistance and achievement."

"We're trying to create role models out of our athletes and whoever we can find that achieves within the society, while at the same time we're rejecting the past [because looking back can be painful, he admitted] where there have always been people that would inspire us," Heap said.

He regards the production as a work in progress as "we don't have the money for the play to reach its full potential, but somebody else might. I think it'd make a great movie or a mini-series."

The play closes on Sunday.