Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer
After years of hearing about the negatives associated with dancehall music, Orville Matherson yearned for the day when foreigners would get to see the brighter side of reggae's outrageous offspring.
The New York-based actor/ director has got his chance with Saving Grace, a low-budget film currently in production.
Saving Grace, Matherson is quick to point out, is not another dancehall movie. It is set in Johnsonville, Georgia, United States, where his character, Jamaican Ricky Myers, has gone to take up the job of a substitute dance teacher.
It turns out the mother of one of Myers' students has a brain tumour that requires surgery which costs US$90,000. Coincidentally, there is a dance contest in Johnsonville offering a winner's bounty of US$100,000.
"It's not totally Jamaican; it's really about a Jamaican coming to America, going into a community and making a difference," Matherson, who is in his 30s, told The Sunday Gleaner, "This film also shows dancehall in a different light."
Saving Grace is the debut movie from Tower Isle Productions, a company owned by Matherson and Junior Powell. Work on the US$1 million flick started in 2007 and is expected to be completed by November.
"We've filmed most of it, we're working on the dance scenes now and training people to do the dance moves," Matherson said. Jamaican groups Black Blingaz and Sample Six are helping to teach the cast the latest dancehall moves. They also play themselves in the movie.
Matherson as Ricky Myers and Donna Ray Opal, who plays Opal, are the main characters in Saving Grace, the latest movie with a dancehall flavour. Kla$$h (1995), Dancehall Queen (1997) and Third World Cop (1999), all shot in Jamaica, featured the genre's biggest names, but failed to make a mark with American audiences.
"That's what we want to do with this film … take it to a mainstream level," Matherson said.
Matherson, who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, has some experience in the American mainstream. He has appeared in episodes of Law and Order and New York Undercover, as well as several theatrical productions in Chicago and New York.
Lived in Tower Hill
In 2005 he and Powell formed Tower Isle Productions. Its name is tribute to the tough Tower Hill area of St Andrew where they lived before migrating to the US.
Matherson grew up in New Milford, Connecticut, but studied at the Devry Institute of Technology where he earned a degree in finance. For Saving Grace, Matherson said he did extensive research on dancehall culture, listening to its top acts, travelling to Jamaica and attending the hottest dance spots like 'Passa Passa' and 'Weddy Weddy'.
He is also aware of the controversies that have dogged the genre. Some performers have been condemned for their violent lyrics and have also been targeted by gay-rights groups for encouraging violence against homosexuals. Matherson says Saving Grace might be just that for a sound still seeking mainstream respect.
"I think it will bring a new sense of appreciation to dancehall and its culture. In this film, it's dancehall culture that saves the day," he said.