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Theater

From established theaters to backyard productions, if you're looking for a performance, you're sure to find one in Jamaica

Jamaica's dynamic theater scene focuses on native writers and styles of performance. Music and dance are often integrated, producing a unique form of entertainment you won't find anywhere else. However, you will also be able to catch more familiar Western plays if you choose. In fact, Jamaica boasts a long theatrical history steeped in the classics.

Theater History

Spanish Town most likely hosted Jamaica's first theater in 1682. In the next century, two theaters opened there, as well as one in Kingston. Kingston's impressive Theatre Royal debuted in 1840. All over the island, performances were also held in other buildings, such as private homes, stores, and court houses.

Who Performed

Jamaica's beauty attracted professional touring companies. Many were British and American, but other European companies occasionally visited. When the Revolutionary War began, some American company members fled the States and relocated to Jamaica.

Local amateur groups competed with the touring companies for performance space, often losing out. These groups were split along social and racial lines. Several all-black groups existed in the mid-1800s, but they didn't last. While most amateurs didn't aspire to a professional career, a few sought their fortunes on foreign stages.

Who Watched

Not surprisingly, the primary audience was the white upper class. However, slaves, servants, sailors, and wealthy and middle-class blacks and also attended. By 1813, segregation in the theater was commonplace.

Class was more important than race, with white sailors sharing the worst seats with slaves and servants. Nonetheless, segregation was not well-tolerated by the black middle class.

In 1815, black protesters denounced both segregation and racial slurs from the Theatre Royal's manager. The protest turned into a riot. Although the demonstrators received fines and jail time, theater segregation disappeared the following year.

This riot wasn't the only violence in the theaters. Audiences were rowdy. Patrons talked loudly and fought among themselves. And performances often ended early because audience members assaulted actors or destroyed the sets. Laws imposed steep penalties on such misbehavior, but offenses continued until about 1900.

What Played

Productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were most popular. However, other types of dramatic entertainment flourished.

When Kingston's Jewish population became more influential, companies catered to them with Jewish-themed plays. Meanwhile, the French community, quite large by the 1820s, put on their own comic operettas, vaudevilles, and melodramas.

Over the years, Jamaicans enjoyed operas, comedy shows, marionettes, ventriloquists, magic acts, acrobats, circuses, and blackface minstrels.

Jamaican Style Develops

Indigenous Jamaican entertainment bore little resemblance to Western theater. Taíno ceremonies combined music, dance, and poetic songs to celebrate the heroics of their caciques (chieftains). A few historians believe some Taínos survived into the colonial period, moving into the mountains and intermarrying with the Maroons. So their traditions may have passed down.

African song, dance, and storytelling greatly influenced the black community. Their dances and games sometimes involved acting and role-playing. Fund-raisers called tea meetings resembled a variety show, with audiences dressed up in elaborate finery to parody Theatre Royal patrons.

Their Own Voices

Formal theater rarely presented tales relevant to island life. However, newspapers and journals published several early Jamaican plays.

In 1853, the Theatre Royal produced native-born Charles Shanahan's farce "The Mysteries of Vegetarianism." Theater-goers loved its satire of a vegetarian trend on the island.

As slavery became a more distant memory, black Jamaicans began telling stories that reflected their experiences. When it suited their narratives, storytellers used Creole language rather than English.

Still, theater remained largely westernized. On a visit in 1911, George Bernard Shaw advised Jamaicans to shun the foreign traveling companies and to write and act in their own plays. Otherwise, he believed, the theater would "vulgarize and degrade" them.

Change came slowly, but in the late 1920s, Marcus Garvey jump-started a shift embracing black culture. He wrote and produced several plays for the working class. And his organization UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) founded Edelweiss Park, where nightly events entertained the masses. Plays, vaudevilles, follies, comedians, and elocution contests were all part of the fun.

Pantomimes

Pantomimes began as an English import. They played sporadically beginning in the 1700s. But they only started to catch on with the introduction of Christmas pantomimes in 1898. Their combination of songs, dances, magic, and similar feats melded well with native traditions.

In the 1940s, the LTM (Little Theatre Movement) popularized pantomimes by fusing English elements with Jamaican folklore. Since then, pantomimes have evolved into exuberant performances with their own singular style. Currently Jamaica's major theatrical event, pantomimes run for several months, beginning in December.

The Theater Boom

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaican theater exploded as numerous groups formed. Small theaters such as the Barn Theatre sprung up, often in barns in back yards. And the Sistren Theatre Collective sought to empower poor, urban women by exploring their experiences through improvisation. Jamaicans had always loved bawdy comedy filled with sexual innuendo. Writers at this time further developed those conventions into "roots" theater, a style still popular.

The Ward Theatre

Often considered the most famous and influential theater in the Caribbean, the Ward Theatre opened in 1912. The majestic building replaced the Theatre Royal, which had been destroyed several years prior in a devastating earthquake.

By the 1920s, the Ward had a prestigious reputation. Broadway plays visited the theater, and Broadway actors considered performing there an honor. Its heyday lasted well into the late 20th century. However, both the building and the surrounding neighborhood fell into a decline, which has discouraged attendance.

Recent revitalization efforts aimed at downtown and the theater have sought to bring back the theater-going public. The Culture, Health, Arts, Sports, & Education Fund allotted $3 million(JD) to a 2004 production of "Into the Woods." To increase attendance, they offered group rates and arranged a shuttle so people could park uptown.

Despite falling out of favor, the Ward Theatre continues to host a wide variety of performances, including plays, the annual pantomimes, and dance productions.

Contemporary Theater

Kingston remains the hub of dramatic activity in Jamaica. Most of today's theaters are located there. However, companies such as Jambiz International tour productions around the island, often playing in school auditoriums.

Even in Kingston, because most theaters are small, companies sometimes stage plays in unconventional venues. For instance, the Redbones Blues Cafe hosted a 2002 production of Noel Coward's "Come Into the Garden, Maude."

Modern Jamaican playwrights usually write in patois (local dialects), which travelers may or may not understand. Roots plays and plays with social or political commentary prevail.

Although the number of writers, actors, and directors is limited, they generally produce high-quality work. Some have achieved international recognition, such as Trevor Rhone and Patrick Brown.

Experience theater, Jamaican style, at one of the following locations:

Theatre Location Phone Description
The Barn Theatre 5 Oxford Rd.
New Kingston
876-926-6469 Seats approximately 150. Most plays are suitable for families, though they occasionally produce adult fare.
The Centerstage Theatre Dominica Dr.
New Kingston
876-968-7529 Small but cozy. Family-oriented musicals in patois.
The Little Theatre and
The Little Little Theatre
4 Tom Redcam Ave.
New Kingston
876-926-6129 Two theaters on the same property.
The Pantry Playhouse 2 Dumfries Rd.
New Kingston
876-960-9845  
The Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts Mona 876-927-1047 Large auditorium on the campus of the University of the West Indies. In the greater Kingston area. 
Stages Theatre 15 Knutsford Blvd.
New Kingston
876-926-4966  
The Ward Theatre North Parade
Kingston
876-922-0453 Large theater. Wide variety of shows.

While Kingston offers the most live theater, you still may find productions elsewhere. Remember to check local papers for performances happening off the beaten path. Your hotel may also be able to direct you. You'll discover much about the character of Jamaica with a night at the theater.

 

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