Dance, theatre constant for Rex
This is the conclusion of a two-part creative non-fiction article commemorating the life of the late Rex Nettleford, focusing on his early years in the performing arts, and is based on interviews with him. Last weekend marks the anniversary of both his birth and death.
At Cornwall College, Rex Nettleford excelled at both his schoolwork and extra-curricular activities, which included work as actor, writer, and adapter of novels for the stage (like Charles Dickens' Great Expectations) and presenter of dialect poems which he got published in a Montego Bay weekly newspaper.
Rex played the part of Bassanio in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which Cornwall entered in the first Secondary Schools Drama Festival. It was held in 1951 at the Garrison Theatre on South Camp Road, Kingston. The Gleaner's critic, Harry Milner, liked the production and commented that Rex "moved like a dancer".
Little did he know of the boy's interest in dance.
meeting influential people
Rex also became a member of the Montego Bay Boys' Club, run by Charles Agate. As a result, he met a number of influential people who were interested in both the club and drama.
One was Lady Jean Campbell, who had studied drama at the Old Vic Drama School in England. She was the granddaughter of British newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook, who came to Jamaica in the winter to escape the English cold. He threw parties for the Boys' Club, a club of the less-privileged boys in Montego Bay. The boys would entertain Lord Beaverbrook's guests. At one party, Rex, the club's leader, made a wrong turn and ended up in the kitchen, where he bumped into Lady Jean.
"Sorry, I was looking for ..."
"Oh, hello. I've been wanting to meet you. I'm Lady Jean Campbell."
"Please to meet you, ma'am. I'm Rex."
"Yes, I know. I saw you and your friends singing. You're also quite an actor, I hear."
Rex smiled and shrugged. "It's for other people to say how good I am, but I do a lot of drama."
"Come," said Lady Campbell, "let's go into the garden and you tell me about it. I studied theatre myself, you know, in England."
Rex found a good listener in Lady Campbell and he told her about his yard concerts, his work with the Cornwall College Drama Club, and extra-curricular work with the Worm Chambers Dance Troupe. Delighted by the enthusiasm and talent she saw in Rex and other members of the Boys' Club, Lady Jean started giving drama classes to members and some of Rex's schoolmates and friends. Out of those classes, The Starlings drama group was formed, with Rex as its leader. The group met for training every morning at six, before school, and did numerous improvisations and a few modern plays for the public, among them Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
The classes were later taken over by an American millionairess, Mimi Howells, who noticed Rex's interest in dance. Over a period of some years, she gave him books and magazines on modern dance, and soon he had one of the best collections in the island. Though he learnt a lot from the foreign publications, Rex's interest was mainly in how Jamaicans moved their bodies. He observed those around him - on the road, in the market, in their dancing - and used what he saw in his dance creations for the Worm Chambers Dance Troupe.
One of the regular playing venues for the group was Mr Chambers' boat. On dance nights, Worm and others in his group would lay planks across the boat's hull while it was moored in the water beside Casablanca Hotel. The planks created a stage for the dancers. While watching from the hotel balcony the guests would throw money into the boat. Being a schoolboy, Rex kept off the boat himself, but he prepared the performers for the shows.
Soon, Rex graduated from just choreographing for the troupe to dancing with then. The first dance he did was to the song Begin the Beguine. He clothed his partner, a fiery young woman named Gertie, in a white costume with a red sash, while he himself wore a bolero. Gertie's quick temper got her into trouble with the law and only a week after the August Morning show, she got convicted and was held in jail. To everyone's relief, she was back in time for the regular Christmas concert.
Rex stayed with the Worm Chambers group for the eight years he was in Montego Bay. In his last year in the town, having graduated from Cornwall, he became a junior master at the institution. This position gave him access to the file the school kept on him. In it, to his surprise, were notes on his theatre activities with the Worm Chambers troupe. All along, he had imagined he had kept his extra-curricular relationship a secret from the headmaster, Norman Jackson.
One reason no one in authority had spoken to him about it might well have been that Rex always did well in his schoolwork and could not have been accused of neglecting it. Another reason might have been that the school was also benefiting from Rex's artistic talents. He was the moving spirit of the school's drama club and choreographed a Pocomania suite which he, as shepherd, and the boys performed in a hotel to raise funds for the school.
Years later, reminiscing, Nettleford stated: "I started doing a lot of sketches (skits and revues) while I was at Montego Bay Boys' Club and Cornwall. At the school, I even adapted scenes from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. I sang on the church choir at Trinity Anglican church and even played the organ, by ear, at Sunday school, which I also taught. Every time they had a patronal festival, they'd use me to act some part or the other. So I acted a lot while at Cornwall."
Because the school had mainly boarders - though he was not one - the boys had to create their own diversions. Friday nights were reserved for these and Rex's productions, usually lampooning class differences in the society and featuring the upper-class mistress and her maid, were a regular item on the dramatic menu.
After teaching for a year at Cornwall College, Rex left Montego Bay to study history at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI), on a Jamaica Government scholarship. Again, he was pulled towards both drama and dance. Despite working with many well-known names in theatre, like Trinidadian playwright-director Errol Hill and St Lucian playwright and poet Derek Walcott, then also a student at the University College, Rex established stronger links with Jamaican creative dance pioneer Ivy Baxter. That association was to lead to major changes and developments in Jamaican dance.
Specifically, it led to the formation of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), which, as its name implies, is a dance company with a strong dramatic bent, a reflection of its leader's dual interest and experiences.
Prof the Hon Rex Nettleford was the co-founder, artistic director, and chief choreographer of the NDTC, vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and a fellow of the Institute of Jamaica. The author of several books, he received Jamaica's second highest honour, the Order of Merit, the Gold Musgrave Medal, and 13 honorary doctorates from various universities on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most prestigious, awarded in July 2003, was the Honorary Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University. He had previously been made an Honorary Fellow of the university's Oriel College, where he studied politics as a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he choreographed and/or co-directed every major theatrical production at the university between 1957 and 1959. Among them were Ravel's Les Enfants et Les Sortileges, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (in which he also played Time), Aristophanes' The Birds (a musical version with music composed by Dudley Moore), and On the Fringe, a revue for the 1959 Edinburgh Festival which was later remounted for the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London in 1960.
The awards were for Professor Nettleford's outstanding contribution to education and culture in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
Born in Trelawny on February 3, 1933, Rex Nettleford died in the USA in February 2010, just four hours short of his 77th birthday.