A report by Vinette K. Pryce for Caribbean Life News.
Once again, Jamaica is in the spotlight.
This time shining the light on the Caribbean island / nation is the Harlem Repertory Theater with a 60th anniversary staging of the musical that launched the iconic actress Lena Horne into Broadway stardom.
In 1957, the legendary star of stage, screen and recordings starred in Y.E Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy’s “Jamaica” and the rest is history.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on Oct. 31, 1957 and closed on April 11, 1959 after 558 performances.
The cast included Ricardo Montalban as Koli and Horne as Savannah, Ossie Davis as Cicero, and Josephine Premice as Ginger.
Every principal actor was nominated for a Tony award the following year but Davis took home the coveted trophy for his best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical.
Alvin Ailey was the principal dancer.
In honor of that historic theatrical debut the musical, “Jamaica” returns to New York City, this time to The Tato Laviera Theatre, 240 East 123rd St. in Harlem.
“Jamaica” takes its audience on a journey to Pigeon Island off the coast of Jamaica, following an ambitious island girl named Savannah who dreams of finding true love and escaping to New York City.
“The production examines how an isolated island community navigates the perils of love, family and relationships while they confront the increasing pressures of American commercialism, class struggles and racism.”
Harburg a playwright and lyricist wrote the now landmark production when he was a victim of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s purge of liberals, Communist sympathizers and anti-political rhetoric.
During the period of fear from persecution and repercussions from elected officials at the highest level of government, many creative talents were forced to work underground, temper their expressions or submit to making the ultimate sacrifice by leaving the country.
Paul Robeson, opera singer, actor, athlete, cultural scholar and Civil Rights activist did.
Harburg chose not to find a home elsewhere outside of America. Instead he abandoned a career in Hollywood (where a serious McCarthy blacklist prevailed) and focused his talents on the Broadway stage.
Revered as the “social conscience of Broadway” after writing the depression era lyrics for his anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Harburg’s progressive communal vision is now a nostalgic triumph.
His socially conscious classic Broadway shows include the anti-racist, anti-capitalist musicals: “Finian’s Rainbow,” (1947) “Bloomer Girl,” “Flahooley” (1951) and “Jamaica” (1957).
He also won wide acclaim for his collaborative presentation with Fred Saidy of “The happiest Girl in the World” (1961).
Together with the playwright, Harburg set the stage for a number of winning productions.
As co-writer of the book, Saidy was nominated for Broadway theater’s highest award — the Tony — for Best Musical for his work on “Jamaica.”
According to the producers, “the current contentious political environment” could prove to be a retrospect with its “powerful political themes (racism, classism, and capitalism).”
Those aspects “resonate even more today than they did in 1959 when this groundbreaking and mostly forgotten musical theatre treasure opened on Broadway.”
After all these years, Harlem Repertory Theatre, under the direction of its founding artistic director Keith Lee Grant recently announced that “Jamaica” will run from July 29 into the spring of 2018.
Grant boasts graduate degrees from the Yale School of Drama and Penn State University as well as certification from the American Conservatory Theater’s advanced training program.
He has directed and/or choreographed more than 140 professional and university productions some of which includes William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, Latino poet and playwright Miguel Pinero’s “Short Eyes,” William Inge’s “Picnic” and Broadway musicals “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” and the unforgettable “Mame.”
“It tells a powerful story about a Jamaican woman’s dream of moving to New York City.” The storyline focuses on “a beautiful island girl named Savannah who longs to escape to New York to live a life of modern conveniences. She is tempted to accept the marriage proposal of a New York businessman visiting the island.
However, when an impoverished fisherman named Koli, saves her younger brother’s life during a hurricane, she opts to remain with him on the island.”
Once again a musical production puts the island on the theatrical map of progressive locations for revolutionary activism.
Composer Harold Arlen who is acclaimed for arranging the music for iconic songs that serve as the foundation of the American song book — “Over the Rainbow” was voted the twentieth century’s number one song by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment of the Arts.
Although his early presentation parodied calypso which was popular during the 50s due to Harry Belafonte’s hits with the genre, this revival will likely integrate hip-hop, pop and surely the island’s hard-driving reggae beat.
The book of Harlem Repertory’s reproduction has been adapted by Art Perlman who also adapted the Broadway script for the critically acclaimed and Tony nominated recent revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
In addition to Perlman’s fresh, new perspective, the musical will be staged environmentally with the actors, singers and dancers performing throughout the performance space only inches away from the audience.
Likewise, Edward Corcino has designed colorful, entertaining, and thought-provoking animations, while award-winning puppet designer, Daniel Fergus Tamulonis, has managed to sneak in some surprising puppets for the production.
With costumes designed by Mary Myers, the cast features Taylor-Rey Rivera, Barbyly Noël, Corean Robinson, Dexter Thomas-Payne, Daniel Fergus Tamulonis, Derrick Montalvado and Jason Johnson.
The Harlem Repertory Theatre is a non-profit theater committed to producing artistically and intellectually challenging productions that explore the experiences of a diverse range of ethnic, social, and cultural communities.
Performances of “Jamaica” are slated for 7 pm.
For more information, log onto www.harlemrepertorytheatre.com .