There is a wilful, pervasive ignorance of the performing arts that persists in the minds of the people of Western Jamaica. They do not know and therefore they cannot appreciate what Kingston and the rest of the corporate area (dare I say, cosmopolitan area?) have embraced for decades now: that the performing arts are not only viable career choice but also a rather lucrative enterprise.
If you’re a singer, fine. You might get a “one-buss” on Rising Stars (a Jamaican reinterpretation of American Idol); otherwise your talent is relegated to singing at church or at school. You don’t get any kind of training (unless your parents are of the Lagoons/Coral Gardens ilk) and by the time you leave high school, no one even remembers you can sing anymore. If you’re a dancer, well, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission is quite frankly the only way your talent will be recognized. And once again, it’s primarily accessed through the education system. Talented dancers begin in primary school, excel in high school and at what should be the beginning of their performing careers, they are dropped unceremoniously onto the cold shores of ‘reality’ with the oft-repeated mandate: “Dancing and singing?” Cheups. “Wha dat good fah?”
That is not to say that the west is entirely bereft of performing ensembles; but their toil and talent is, for the most part, unappreciated. Or simply underappreciated. Those in the field of theatre understand and respect each other, but seem to evoke a kind of bafflement in the wider society. Off the top of my head, I can name at least three theatrical groups in Montego Bay: Dance Spirit, Harmony, Western Dance Group. There are more that I know on sight whose names elude me, and there are undoubtedly others still.
Garrison Youths, a talented, if eclectic, collection of young men all hailing from Cornwall College started their group from high school days. Without the benefit of any formal supervision, these boys managed to achieve national gold medals in the annual JCDC Festival competition, exhibiting a dedication to their craft against the odds that is nothing short of inspirational. Where are they now? Garrison Youths were featured recently as contestants on the popular Dancin’ Dynamites show (think So You Think You Can Dance meets America’s Next Best Dance Crew), and the group has also thrown their weight in with Dance Spirit, the young, up and coming theatrical group spearheaded by Philip Clarke. And yes, that was a shameless plug.
If not with a lack of available talent, then where does the problem lie? Where does the western region fall short of achieving the same kind of theatrical awareness their southeastern counterparts have already laid claim to? If the problem does not exist on the stage, there must be something wrong with the audience.
To be perfectly frank, Montegonians, and indeed western Jamaicans on the whole, are simply ignorant. They do not know and they do not care to know, and unless the idea of the performing arts as a brilliant, vibrant force is paraded under their noses (for free) repeatedly, they will continue to languish in their barren desert. And a desert I must call it, because the very idea of a society without performing arts is that of a society without a soul. The theatre brings life to its largest manifestation; it is culture personified. And until society realizes and accepts the inalienable role theatre plays in creating and supporting our cultural heritage, we will forever be casting the performing arts – and, by extension, ourselves – in the dimmest of roles.
I realize that the denigration of the performing arts is by no means restricted to our fair island, but I’m also fairly certain that nowhere else boasts such a variety of stigma associated with the field as we do. Entertainers can’t earn enough to make a living – “Singing and dancing caan put bread pon’i table”; the persistence of the belief that only gay men love theatre; the belief that people should not be paid to perform (as if it’s “just something you do”); the idea that singing and dancing are just hobbies that children will grow out of. These factors are all interrelated, but are as collectively asinine as they are unfounded.
Consider: If running was “just a hobby” that Usain Bolt or Asafa Powell would grow out of, if they weren’t given the chance to nurture their talent and show it “to di worl”, then where would the human race be today? (A few seconds slower, for sure). In the same way, a talent for dancing or singing is not to be shunted aside simply because it doesn’t fit in with the capitalist ideal of success. The idea that a girl with real talent should be paid thousands of dollars to sing at a school concert is no more far-fetched than the idea that a man with real talent should be paid millions of dollars to run a race. The same society that cheers loudly for sports and physical accomplishments should be made to cheer loudly for accomplishments in other arenas as well.
Theatre lovers and performers have always had an uphill battle for the appreciation of their craft and it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will approve of what we do. I guess what we’re hoping for is a less vehement disapproval, a warmer sort of reception and the unbiased chance to prove that what we’re doing up on that stage means something. Because it does.