Mon | Sep 28, 2020

Theatre is therapy for Earl Warner’s daughter Zahra

Published:Thursday | June 14, 2018 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew
Zahra Warner as a baby with her father Earl and mother Karen Ford-Warner.
Zahra Warner

Zahra Warner was only eight when her father - Bajan theatre director and writer Earl Warner passed away but she remembers their primary relationship and grew up on the knowledge of his work in the Caribbean.

The 27-year-old drama therapist says that her own career is a result of what she observed as a child and learning about her father's work through mourning his absence.

"Truth is, I avoided it (theatre) in its direct, pure form for most of my early teenage years because of the weight of my father's legacy. I felt intimidated by it and preferred to think of him as just my dad," Zahra told The Sunday Gleaner.

But no matter how much she tired to evade the professional side of her father's life, persons who were familiar with the name would not let her forget the great contributions he made to theatre or remind her of how much they missed him.

"A lot of my extra-curricular activities were at the Edna Manley College of theVisual and Performing Arts, where he taught," she recalled. "I, basically, grew up going to rehearsals and classes, so I had that memory of him as an artist, educator, creator, and champion," she said.

The man recognised for including cultural studies within satirical productions such as Man Talk was physically missing, but his spirit was very much alive for his daughter.

"Losing him when I was only eight years old was world-changing for me because he was a big part of my world - the world our family built in Jamaica - and he was very much invested in building a Caribbean community." After a brief move to Barbados, Zahra returned to Jamaica because "I felt more immersed in the world of the performing arts."

Zahra came out of her shell at this year's Calabash Literary Arts Festival in St Elizabeth, performing a piece she wrote in memory of her father titled, 'For Daddy, 20 years on'. She wrote: "There you are on the page, that unmistakable handwriting, like hieroglyphic calligraphy. Like fingers making tunnels through the underground caves of your mind. As I read your script, rehearsal, and production notes, your image solidifies from ash and wood-pulp."

She left members of the audience - especially those familiar with him - teary-eyed and with goosebumps.


Her bravery


She explains that her journey, her bravery, would not have revealed itself if she had not lost him, which led her to seeking an understanding of who he was as a Caribbean theatre professional.

"We had everything for daddy in storage, so when I started going through the materials and digitally archiving documents for the purpose of providing information for someone else, it triggered a deeper emotion," she said.

She says that from then on, her studies in theatre and literature were fairly coincidental. It started at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus in Trinidad and Tobago and she moved on to explore the fairly new concept of drama therapy at the New York University at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

"At one point, being the daughter of Earl Warner paralysed me because what I did could not compare to his work. But now I am not as self-conscious or worried. Instead, the plan is to use what he gave me as his daughter to add to the value of what currently exists."

The young Warner practises the intentional use of dramatics or theatric techniques to achieve therapeutic or self-improvement goals with clients.

"When people hear the term drama therapy, immediately they think it is for actors or that it is a physically demanding activity, but it can work with any population. For example, it is being used in the prison system. Unfortunately, there is nothing offered formally at the graduate or undergraduate level in Jamaica, so that is something I would like to help achieve in the next 10 years."

Zahra is currently practising with early childhood groups, pre-adolescents to persons living with Alzheimer's, developing forms of dementia, as well as the physically challenged.