Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Toni-Kay Dawkins laughed when I asked if her father, Basil, had paid her for directing his latest production, Toy Boy.
"Absolutely," she replied. "Absolutely."
She added that he would never have given her so much work to do and not pay her. He is not that sort of man.
Dawkins did not go on to comment on how good her direction of the play turned out to be, but she might have. In fact it was excellent, though the production marked her directorial debut.
On Sunday night when I saw the play's closing performance at the Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Drive, St Andrew, the audience loved it. Among those who had congratulated her after the opening night's show the previous week, Dawkins told me, were two well-known actresses who had appeared in the two-hander. One was Leonie Forbes, who had played in the original production in 1996; the other was Barbara McCalla, who appeared in the revival years later.
Toy Boy tells the Pygmalion-like tale of a lonely woman who takes a mentally unstable, but intelligent, street dweller into her house and, later - after she has cleaned him up and stabilised him with medication - into her bed. The original production got a good reception from audiences and also a Best Actor Award for Volier Johnson, who played Festus (or Wrap-up) opposite Forbes as Josephine.
The recently closed production, which featured Maylynne Lowe as Josephine and Christopher McFarlane as Festus, was every bit as enjoyable as the original. With an elegant set designed by Michael Lorde and dressed by Gloria Dawkins (Toni-Kay's mother), it was also prettier.
Quindel Ferguson's costumes looked attractive on Lowe and realistic on McFarlane. Michael 'Rufus' McDonald's lighting created the requisite moods and Kris Dawkins (Toni-Kay's brother) helped her to select delightful music in between scenes.
I wanted to know how Toni-Kay, with neither directing or acting experience except for a couple of walk-on appearances in college productions (at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, where her programme "had nothing to do with theatre"), was able to handle Toy Boy so well.
Her answer was multifaceted. For one, Toni-Kay said, she possesses a sort of "subconscious database" of theatrical knowledge that she drew on for the project. That knowledge was built up over the many years she has been watching plays. That is from childhood, really, since Basil is one of Jamaica's most respected (and most awarded) theatre producer/directors.
Not only had she been helping him with his productions since she was in high school, but Toni-Kay gained further experience of theatre while at Bennington, an arts college. "I was around a lot of aspiring actors, singers and musicians and there were a lot of theatrical productions on campus that were free to the students. I'd watch all of them. It was really interesting and very different from what I saw in Jamaica, in terms of the topics tackled, how they were tackled, and the facilities. My school had several excellent theatre spaces," she said.
On returning to Jamaica in 2006, Toni-Kay resumed helping with her father's productions. This role was at a higher level than before, Toni-Kay officially becoming assistant to the producer. Still, despite the experience she'd gained, Toni-Kay was surprised when out of the blue Basil told her he was reviving Toy Boy and wanted her to direct it.
Despite her protests, her Dad gave Toni-Kay a team which included the backstage crew and actors - and also a free hand to direct.
"He never lurked in the corners suggesting maybe you should do this or that," Toni-Kay said, but confessed the freedom was scary. "I'd thought he'd have been a little more involved in the process," she said.
Having accepted the job, Dawkins read the script on her own for the first time. That reading was to be the first of several, some with the cast, others by herself, and with specific aspects of the production in mind - the set, costumes or one or the other of the characters.
Each reading brought further clarity, Dawkins continued, but in order to get some insight into the mental health issue raised in the play, she brought psychiatrist Wendel Abel into the discussions with the cast. The outcome was "a wealth of information" about causes and conditions of mental illness.
"It really helped me to move the characters forward, for I understood the characters much better, psychologically speaking," Toni-Kay said.
The days of discussions with the cast were followed by even more of blocking their moves on stage. Then, nine weeks after her initial reading of the script, Dawkins faced opening night. Despite what she thought was a terrible dress rehearsal the night before, it went well enough, "though with some hitches", and the feedback was generally positive.
I asked Toni-Kay what Basil thought of the job she did. Smiling broadly, she said "I knew my father was pleased when he told me that he needed to start thinking about which play I'd be directing next".
And suppose he does want her to direct another play?
"If someone had asked me last year if I'd ever direct," Dawkins replied, "I'd have said no, there was no way I'd take on the responsibility. But after this experience with this script, absolutely."