Shakespeare – Shaken and Stirred in Jamaica

KINGSTON, Jamaica – All the world is indeed Shakespeare’s stage.

From London, to New York, to Cape Town, sultry summer afternoons find entranced audiences in parks, along lake fronts and in theatres, feasting on performances from some of this century’s most proclaimed actors.

In New York, “Shakespeare in the Park” has been a staple in the summer theatre diet since 1956, and patrons line up for hours before performances for their tickets.

And, in Shakespeare’s homeland, a variety of companies and theatres hold Shakespearean Festivals, chief among them the reconstructed Globe Theatre in Southeast London; and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace.

In Jamaica, theatre is a vibrant, growing industry, in which writers, producers and actors are being nurtured, and performances promoted to provide a welcome source of entertainment.

Many performers begin as amateurs in school drama clubs, performing locally-written or curriculum-prescribed plays, such as Shakespeare’s works. Students are schooled in the complexities of his plays in preparation for examinations.

However, despite the designation of British English as the country’s official language, some students struggle to reconcile the widely-spoken local dialect with Standard English; and, therefore, find the Shakespearean “lingo” a source of even greater bemusement.

Dr Renée Rattray, Director for Education Programmes for the Jamaica National Building Society, explained the challenges of teaching English Language in Jamaica: “Many students are from communities where the local dialect is predominantly spoken. And, their modern role models, such as popular musicians and deejays, confine their art to the vernacular. We have also identified a worrying trend, where boys who communicate in Standard English are ridiculed by their peers,” she explains.

Notwithstanding, more than 150 students in 14 schools across the country have taken on the additional challenge of “Jamaicanising” a selection of Shakespeare’s works for a national competition, sponsored by the Jamaica National Building Society, which will prepare the wining cast to participate in a similar competition in the United Kingdom in 2016.

And, as fearlessly as the bobsled team from this tropical country embraced the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Calgary, these students have mastered Shakespearean tragedies, comedies and histories, alike; and, have “shaken and stirred” them into delightful theatrical re-enactments of modern and traditional Jamaican life.

Imagine Puck, the fairy from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as the local folk hero, Anancy; or, the Merchant Shylock, as a honey-tongued Rastafarian; or, even Macbeth’s three witches, as saucy dancehall queens, in plays fused with indigenous cultural practices, and set against a backdrop of reggae music.

Palpable Changes

The JN Shakespeare Schools’ Championship, as the local competition is known, is the brainchild of Jamaican-born educator, and founder of the UK-based, non-profit ‘Generating Genius’, Dr Tony Sewell. The competition has attracted students from a mix of urban and rural schools, including some, where traditionally, the arts have been given less attention than vocational subjects.

(C)All Rights Reserved
This trio of witches from Campion College’s adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ are portrayed by the popular cultural persona of dancehall queens, usually recognised locally by their distinctive fashion and use of the Jamaican vernacular
(C)All Rights Reserved

Dr Sewell has been championing the transformative effect of drama in education. His study, conducted with 210 boys and girls across the schools involved in the Championship, indicate palpable changes in attitudes to reading, timekeeping, and school attendance, since preparations started six months ago.

Some 90% of the respondents reported increased confidence in articulating their views; and, there was a 17% increase in the number of students who stated that their mastery of the English Language had increased, since their verbal exposure to the plays in the competition.

The erstwhile Petruchio woos a disdainful Kate in Decarteret College’s performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. (C)All Rights Reserved
The erstwhile Petruchio woos a disdainful Kate in Decarteret College’s performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’.
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Dr Sewell noted that Jamaica, with its natural tendency towards comedy, tragedy and irony is the ideal place for the staging of Shakespeare’s plays. “The rhythm in the language enhances his text, and Jamaican everyday life is a live-action play. Shakespeare would have found Jamaica the ideal landscape for his plays,” he commented.

Interestingly, a sizeable percentage of the casts comprise teenage boys; that fact in itself is remarkable, in a country of marginalised males.

International Impact

A cadre of local theatre professionals were enlisted to mentor the casts and judge the performances. They are led by dramaturge Eugene Williams, who heads the School of Drama at the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts.

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In this adaptation of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Waterford High School portrays Shakespeare’s Lysander (left) as a Jamaican Rastafarian, bringing indigenous religious elements to their interpretation of this comedy

This School of Drama has been a nursery for local talent, many of whom have gone on to excel internationally.  And, while Jamaica is probably best known for its track and field athletics and musical exploits, the country has, in fact, unleashed much theatrical talent on international stages.

Among them are the late Dennis Scott, who played Lester Tibedeux in The Cosby Show; David Reviers from Charmed and Poseidon; the late Madge Sinclair in “Coming to America”; and, the award-winning actress and songstress, Grace Jones.

Come March 2016, the spotlight will be on a fresh crop of Jamaican talent, high school thespians, “armed and well prepared,” who have been waiting in the wings to “shake and stir” the global theatre scene.



South Florida Caribbean News

The SFLCN.com Team provides news and information for the Caribbean-American community in South Florida and beyond.

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