For the Reckord | IOJ celebrates four extraordinary J'can women
On the pleasant afternoons of the past two Sundays, the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), through its Jamaica Music Museum (JaMM) division, celebrated the life and work of four extraordinary Jamaican women.
Singer Mercedes Kirkwood, artist Edna Manley, poet, playwright and social activist Una Marson, and writer-performer Louise Bennett-Coverley (all deceased) were honoured with written and spoken words, pictures and music in a two-part event titled 'Four Women'.
It was presented in the IOJ's auditorium as well as outside in the lobby, where there were biographical posters, and conceptualiser and chief organiser Herbie Miller, the JaMM's director/curator, said it was both a salute to Women's History Month and a tribute to retired executive director of the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) Winsome Hudson. The JaMM and NLJ were partners in the well-attended, enthusiastically received production.
"I see this as something that could go to the parishes, to colleges and reggae festivals," Miller said in response to a question from an audience member, who asked if it could be made available to the Jamaican diaspora. It had been recorded by the CPTC, Miller added, but the editing and packaging of the videoed material "costs money" and private-sector donations would be welcomed.
At the first 'Four Women' presentation, on March 11, talks on Kirkwood and Manley were given by, JaMM research officer/associate curator Shari Williams and author Rachel Manley, Edna Manley's granddaughter, respectively. In the break between the talks, entertainment was provided by honey-toned vocalist Myrna Hague and accompanying pianist Marjorie Whylie.
At the second presentation, on Sunday last, the talks on Marson and Bennett-Coverley were given by Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn and Jamaica's Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison, respectively. Entertainment came from Ruby Meek-Haye, a girl of about eight, who recited poems by Carolyn Cooper and Paul Keens-Douglas; the University Players, with an excerpt from Marson's play Pocomania; and actress Leonie Forbes, who read three of Marson's poems.
In the printed programme, Miller writes, "The event focuses on the personalities of Jamaican women whose artistic, cultural and political contribution are both well and lesser known," and the general public would probably agree that of the four, Manley and Bennett-Coverley would fall into the well-known category. In fact, both the presenters on the "lesser known" women admitted that they knew little to nothing about their subjects until doing their research.
Naturally, their presentations were much more academic than the intimate presentations of the other two speakers, who had known their subjects personally. Rachel Manley grew up with her grandmother, and Bennett-Coverley was a close friend of Goodison and, for a while, her landlady. Both lived in Gordon Town for many years.
If indeed Kirkwood and Marson were the lesser-known figures, much of the following information would have been new to the IOJ audiences. The Cuba-born Kirkwood came to Jamaica at age 13, began singing in the 1940s at small events, attended the Jamaica School of Music in the 1960s, appeared in JMTC and LTM productions (including the famous Queenie's Daughter), and performed frequently in the US and UK for nearly 20 years. She was awarded a CD honour for her contribution to Jamaica's musical theatre in 2013.
Marson scored a number of notable 'firsts' in her life. She was the first woman in Jamaica to edit and publish a magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, in it raising gender issues, espousing feminist views, and featuring locally written poems. She helped to form the Kingston Drama Club and The Pioneer Press, published several volumes of poetry, and wrote plays, including London Calling, Pocomania and At What Price. The last named was the first written and staged by a woman in Jamaica.
Going to England in the1930s, she fought against racism and gender discrimination there. For a while, she worked at the League of Nations (now the UN), where she was the first delegate from Jamaica and the first black woman to attend their convention. In 1936, she was a member of staff of the Ethiopian delegation which accompanied HM Emperor Haile Selassie to the League of Nations. She was the UK's first female broadcaster. As Williams said, "She was a leading black woman of her day ... and her ideas continue to be pertinent today."
Not surprisingly, the audience responded positively to the promise of IOJ Executive Director Vivian Crawford that there would be future presentations of 'Four Women'.