Yvonne Brewster launches book on Barn theatre
Author, editor and internationally acclaimed Jamaican theatre practitioner Yvonne Brewster, launched her most recent book, Vaulting Ambition: Jamaica's Barn Theatre, 1966-2005 (Peepal Tree Press), at Bookophilia on March 22. In it, Brewster notes that the guiding aim of the theatre was to "provide, encourage and promote work that was worthwhile, serious and principled."
Speaking to a gathering of fellow academics, theatre practitioners, and friends and relatives of the author, the event's keynote speaker, professor emeritus Edward Baugh, said that the Barn helped to make Caribbean theatre history. He listed as some outstanding personalities associated with the Barn playwright Basil Dawkins, director-designer Trevor Nairne, actress Grace McGhie, the "intriguing" actor-playwright-producer Hugh King, actor Munair Zacca, and playwright-producer-actor Trevor Rhone.
He approvingly quoted Brewster's opinion that "It is probably safe to suggest that without the Barn Theatre 77 and the Barn experience, Trevor Rhone might not have become the playwright that he did," one of the Caribbean's finest playwrights.
The use of the Barn as a theatre space came about "by accident," he noted. Weary of Brewster and her friends rehearsing on the verandah of the house, Mr Clarke (Brewster's father) suggested that they rehearse in the garage beside it. They did, and they eventually converted it into a theatre. "The place became," Baugh said, "a model of inventiveness."
After a nostalgia-filled anecdote about recently driving down Norwood Avenue to look at the spot where the Barn had existed for 40 years on premises now given over to car sales, Baugh, himself a former actor, said, "The Barn is gone, but its effect on the development of Jamaican theatre cannot be erased."
Dawkins, the emcee for the function, told of writing his first play, Flatmate, which won a Bronze medal in the 1978 JCDC literary competition, and searching for a producer, including the Barn producers, and being turned down. But then, he directly contacted Brewster, the theatre's owner-manager who was in England at the time. Her response, "Give the young boy a chance," led to the play being produced there.
Carmen Tipling also said that her first play, Straight Man (1974), was produced at the Barn, and with that production, she became the Barn's first female producer. To much laughter, she spoke of the irony of a member of the audience telling her, "I don't have to watch this on stage. It happen in my office every day." He meant it as a criticism; she took it as a compliment.
Also speaking of his early days in theatre was Zacca, who, along with Rhone and Brewster, was a member of Theatre 77, the theatre's initial resident producers.
"I'm quite moved, you know," Brewster said of the praise showered on her and her publication. She then turned the lectern over to McGhie, who read excerpts from the book. Her selections illustrated what Baugh called the work's, easy, non-academic, engaging language and its "delicious use of humour".
First black female drama student
Brewster, who left Jamaica to begin study at Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in the 1950s, thereby becoming the UK's first black female drama student, was, until February 2003, the artistic director of Talawa, the country's leading black theatre company, which she co-founded in 1985. Awarded an Order of the British Empire for Services to the Arts (OBE) in 1993, she published The Undertaker's Daughter: The Colourful Life of a Theatre Director in 2004 and has worked on numerous films and edited five collections of plays by black playwrights.
The 'vaulting ambition' of the title of her latest book comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, specifically from the title character's horse-mounting reference to his excessive ambition, which "o'er leaps itself and falls on the other (side)". However, the enthusiastic reaction of the audience at the launch indicated that they believed that the Barn theatre fulfilled rather than 'over-leaped' the ambitions of the founders.