Rex and the rhumba dancers
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
This two-part creative non-fiction article commemorating the life of the late Rex Nettleford focuses on his early years in the performing arts and is based on interviews with him. This weekend marks the anniversary of both his birth and death. Part two will appear in next Friday's Gleaner.
The news spread like a bush fire in August. Ranny Williams was coming to Bunkers Hill.
And those who doubted the good news ran to the shop and saw the handwritten poster. It promised an unforgettable experience.
It was 1940 and Bunkers Hill, a tiny village of a few hundred people in the heart of Trelawny, was not accustomed to performers visiting. But most had heard of Ranny Williams, an actor, comedian, impresario, and vendor of Dr Chase's Indian Root Pills, who travelled throughout Jamaica with his vaudeville show and medicines.
Seven year-old Rex, a student at Unity Primary School, had not only heard of the Ranny Williams entertainers; he had seen them some years before in Falmouth. The show, consisting of men acting in sketches, telling stories and jokes, and girls dancing in colourful costumes, had made quite an impact and he was looking forward to seeing it again.
"Granny," he asked that evening, "I can go?"
"As long as you do you homework and ..."
"I always do my homework," said Rex, adding proudly, "and I always get de best marks."
His grandmother, Mrs Florence Reid, patted him on the head. "Yes, Rexie, you're a very bright boy, but you must let Granny finish her sentence. You must do you homework and all the other things you have to do around the house."
His grandmother's words caused Rex a moment's dismay. His duties around the house and the three-quarter of an acre plot he, his grandmother, and her children lived on were numerous. What chores would he have on the appointed day? Would he be able to finish them in time to see the show?
But a twinkle in his grandmother's eye told him that not only would he be going, but she and his aunts as well. The Ranny Williams show was too large an event for anyone to miss.
Either as participant or an onlooker, Rex was always involved in performance. He recited or sang in his school's end-of-year concerts, was on the church choir singing cantatas and oratorios, and frequently danced with his grandmother at weekly Pocomania meetings.
For Emancipation celebrations, he and his family would go to Montpelier and later Montego Bay to maypole dancing and other folk events. Even in class, the spelling bee contests he frequently won involved a performance of sorts.
And at home, on a moonlight night when she was in the mood, his grandmother would tell her family duppy and Anancy stories - that is, when they weren't all outside playing 'Moonshine Darling' or ring games and singing folk songs.
But the Ranny Williams production was the only truly formally organised one Rex saw until he was 10 years old and left Trelawny for St James to attend Montego Bay Boys' School. Then, for the first time, he heard a radio and went to the cinema.
He spent a year at the school, then got a scholarship to Cornwall College. Being poor and living in Barnett Lane, a run-down section of the town, he felt the need to earn money. So he called on his experience as a performer and started producing yard concerts.
This involved fencing around a section of the yard and charging audiences a penny to see Rex and his friends singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. Often the poems were Rex's own compositions. The performers were dressed in crepe paper, old clothes - or even bush.
One day, on his way to school, an opportunity presented itself for an expansion of Rex's theatrical activities. A man leaning over a shaky wooden gate called out, "Hey, Cornwall College boy. Come here."
"You can write?"
"Write what, sir?"
"Good. I want you write a letter for me."
That was the first conversation Rex had with 'Worm' Chambers. (his Christian name was Elkanah.) He was a Montego Bay stevedore and leader of a variety troupe in the town.
Rex agreed to write the letter. He often did this for people in the area, as many of them (like Worm Chambers) could neither read nor write. Some of them were love letters.
Returning to the yard with the letter that afternoon, he was told by a woman there that Mr Chambers was at practice.
"Where is practice?" Rex asked.
"Roxy Theatre," shouted the woman, referring to one of the town's two cinemas, which doubled as theatres.
When he arrived at the theatre, he saw an unfamiliar type of rehearsal. Mr Chambers was preparing a group of young men and women for a variety concert in a few days. The young women were doing rhumba dancing, which involved much hip wiggling and backward bending. Rex was not impressed. To his mind, the dances were not as good as those he had created for his own shows or those of the Pocomania worshippers in Bunkers Hill.
After handing the letter to Mr Chambers, he asked if he could rework the dances.
Mr Chambers stared at him. "You? How old are you?"
"You think you could do better?"
Rex grinned. "'Cause I do it already."
Mr Chambers' eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he saw confidence in the boy's dark face and shrugged. "All right. Go ahead. Let me see what you can do."
Rex reworked the dances for an hour. At first, the good-natured women were full of doubt and laughter, but by the end, they and Mr Chambers were impressed.
That was how Rex came to join the town's best-known performing group, the Worm Chambers Variety Troupe, whose members included dancers Hortense, Gloria, Chiquita and Gertie. Some of the singers were known as 'The Local Bing Crosby', 'The Local Ella Fitzgerald' and 'The Local Frank Sinatra', because they sounded so much like those famous American artistes.
One dancer, 'Peto', did a tap dance routine with bottle stoppers between his toes, while Worm Chambers and 'Pepper' (the father of one member of the famous St James singing duo, The Blues Busters) did a blackface soft-shoe number. Part of the troupe's variety concert included a comedic court scene and an anti-night noise Pocomania scene involving 'Corpie' who, while initially against the session, ended up 'trumping' better than any of the worshippers. Rex directed those.
Over the next eight years, he became the troupe's chief choreographer, as well as the accountant and secretary. The money he earned, supplemented by an income he got working in a doctor's office on weekends and during holidays, helped him buy textbooks for his courses at Cornwall College.
National Dance Theatre Company members in performance in 1974. From left are Patsy Ricketts, Rex Nettleford, Jackie Guy, and Monica McGowan. File