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The life and times of Louise Bennett-Coverley
published: Thursday | July 27, 2006

Louise Bennett-Coverley. - Norman Grindley/Deputy Chief Photographer

Theatre persdonalities as they appeared at the Jamaica School of Speech and Drama's premiere production of Carlo Goldoni's 'The Servant of the Two Masters' which was played at the Little Theatre on Monday, May 29. Attending the play are left to right: Mrs. Lois Kelly Barrow, Mrs. Louise Bennett-Coverley, Mr. Ranny Williams.

MISS LOU AND GUESTS On a recent edition of Ring Ding, the JBC-TV children's series Miss Lou had a chat with two visitors. Mrs. Juanita Poitier (right), wife of actor Sidney Poitier, and Mrs. Burley Dixon (centre), wife of Ivan Dixon, one of the stars of the former TV series "HOGAN'S HEROES". Mrs. Poitier who is a frequent visitor to the island, is involved in the preparations for a series of concerts to be undertaken by entertainment superstars Sammy Davis Jr., to raise funds for the establishment of a community development project in Jamaica. Mrs. Dixon operates a childen's theatre in Los Angeles, California. Both visitors expressed deep affection for Jamaica and its people.

Louise Bennett was born in Kingston in 1919. She was the daughter of the late Augustus Cornelius Bennett (businessman) and his wife Kerene (nee Robinson).

She was educated at Calabar Elementary School, Ebenezer Primary, St. Simon's College (1933-36), Excelsior High School (1936-38) and Friends College (Highgate).

The young Louise always had an irrepressible sense of humour and a flair for dramatics. She described herself as "an average student".

On Christmas morning 1936 Louise made her first real public appearance when she performed at the annual concert at the Coke Methodist Church. She was then 17 years old. She recited a poem she had written in Jamaican dialect and received a prize of one guinea ;($2.10) from MC Eric Coverley, who would later become her husband.

When Louise Bennett began writing and reciting her dialect poems in the late 1930's and early 1940's she was regarded as an embarrassment. Speaking dialect was felt to be socially unacceptable and only the poor and illiterate spoke patois. The British (Oxford) accent was regarded as the epitome of cultured speech.

At Excelsior High School even some of the teachers did not see the value of Louise Bennett's poetry. But she was encouraged by persons such as W.A. Powell, Hugh Sherlock and the late Astley Clarke. She remained undaunted by the sometimes hostile attitude toward dialect. She insisted on presenting dialect poetry which reflected the lifestyle, philosophy and sense of humour of the Jamaican people.

The Daily Gleaner had previously refused to publish her poems but Michael deCordova heard her at the party and asked her to submit poems for publication in the newspaper. A regular Sunday column evolved for which she was paid ten shillings and six pence ($1.05). The column proved to be a huge success and Louise Bennett received letters from people all over Jamaica. Many persons began reading and performing her poems.

Miss Lou appeared in her first Jamaican pantomime in 1943, playing opposite the late Ranny Williams. The two were to become a much-loved duo in Jamaican theatre.

Her first dialect poem was written when she was fourteen years old. A British Council Scholarship took her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England in 1945. Bennett not only had a scholarship to attend the academy but she auditioned and won a scholarship. Between 1945-46 she was attached to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She hosted two radio programmes 'Caribbean Carnival' and 'West Indian Night.' After graduation she worked with repertory companies in Coventry, Huddersfield and Amersham as well as in intimate revues all over England.

Miss Lou's writings have now been accepted as poetry with several publications to her credit. Jamaica Humour in Dialect was published in 1943; Anancy Stories and Dialect Verse in 1950.

She was married to Eric Winston Coverley on May 30, 1954. They have one adopted child but have fostered almost 17 children now scattered in different parts of the world but who regard them with affection and gratitude.

On her return to Jamaica in 1956 Miss Lou was appointed Drama Officer with the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission and between 1959-63 served as Director of that organisation. She taught drama to youth and adult groups both in social welfare agencies and for the University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department.

Louise Bennett has received numerous awards both in Jamaica and abroad. In 1960 she was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for work in Jamaican literature and theatre.

For a time many persons including critics were baffled as to what genre Miss Lou's writings belonged. The Independence Anthology of Jamaican Literature published in 1962 had a poem of hers which was placed alongside an Anancy story under the Miscellaneous section.

Jamaica Labrish whichwas released in 1966 was an instant best-seller and the book had its second impression in 1972.

In 1974 the Government of Jamaica honoured her with the insignia of Order of Jamaica. The Institute of Jamaica's Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for distinguished eminence in the field of Arts and Culture.

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