Marcus Garvey and the performing arts (pt. 2)
This is the second of a two-part article based on an interview with Rupert Lewis, UWI Professor Emeritus in Political Thought. Lewis has produced three books and numerous articles on National Hero Marcus Garvey and is now writing a short biography on him. Part 1 appeared last Friday.
"Garvey wrote seven plays. I think in his artistic work, he was strongest as a playwright," Professor Lewis said.
He identified the plays as Roaming Jamaicans ("about migration to Central America and Panama"), Slavery: From Hut to Mansion, The Coronation of an African King ("which comes out around the time that Ras Tafari was to be crowned as Emperor, but is not exclusively about Haile Selassie and more about the travails of the UNIA as he sees it") Let My People Go, Ethiopia at the Bar of Justice, A Night in Havana and Wine, Women and War.
[The Wycliffe and Hazel Bennett book The Jamaican Theatre: Highlights of the Performing Arts in the Twentieth Century mentions another Garvey play Roaming Around.]
Unfortunately, Lewis said no scripts of the plays have been found, but there are published reviews and summaries. They reveal that Garvey had "a sense of conflict, climax and pathos - all of which make good theatre."
The fact that there were some 120 people in Slavery: From Hut to Mansion suggests that it was more a pageant than a traditional play, Lewis said, going on to mention Garvey's production of mock trials - also non-traditional forms of theatre. They included a murder trial, a divorce case and a third trial based on his own trial in Jamaica - perhaps his own trial for seditious libel, Lewis said.
The famous actor, Ernest Cupidon, appeared in one of the mock trials as a judge. Cupidon also wrote and performed at Garvey's main production venue, Edelweiss Park, 67 Slipe Road (also the UNIA's international headquarters). Many other famous actors of the time, including Ranny Williams, also performed at the park.
"Ranny started out as a hoofer, a backline dancer, but soon he was in the front line, and then he got into creating and performing his own skits," Lewis said.
Garvey created the Edelweiss Amusement Company, responsible for the performances, which later morphed into the Kingston Amusement Company. Edelweiss Park also hosted sporting events, boxing being one, with boxers coming from Cuba and Haiti to compete with locals, Lewis' research revealed that Norman Manley, a big boxing fan, watched boxing at the venue.
Lewis said Garvey had two choirs, one focused on religious singing, and the other on secular, with a repertoire including light classical music and folk songs.
Gerald Leon, a Jamaican who had worked in New York and Paris, was a cultural director. His brother was Lord Fly, a mento performer. One of the company's conductors was a trained musician, Granville Campbell, and there was also a jazz band - the Universal Jazz Hounds - and a female dance troupe, The Follies.
Lewis also mentioned Garvey's "strong interest" in film. He invited a German filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, one of film legend Marlene Dietrich's directors, to speak at Edelweiss Park. Lewis said Garvey believed that film was "the medium that was going to dominate the rest of the century", showing his love of the arts extended into the new technology.
"In fact, when you look at the 1919 legal document of the business arm, the African Communities League, it included reference to the possibility of making films," Lewis said.
He revealed that Garvey's relationship with Claude McKay was "on and off, but Garvey admired McKay's literary contribution - and, of course, the famous poem, If We Must Die, a product of the 1919 upheaval in the United States where there were some 26 riots."
Lewis said Garvey encouraged Una Marson in her writings, and his newspapers had reviews of contemporary artistic events and books. The Negro World, which lasted from 1918 - 1932, included many African-American writers, one being Zora Neale Hurston, and was "at the hub of the Harlem Renaissance".
Mentioning Garvey's love of ceramics, sculpture and the fine arts generally, Lewis wrapped up our talk with this comment: "For Garvey, the arts were the creative interface with his population. Basically, you're seeking to change people's conceptions of themselves and you can talk to them, but you also have to bring the performing arts to bear on [their] psyche... . All the liberty halls had their own cultural activities."