Remembering Easton Lee

Remembering Easton Lee

Fae Ellington reflects on Easton Lee

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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BROADCASTER, actress and retired university lecturer Fae Ellington cannot put her finger on exactly when she first met her late friend Easton Lee, the author, poet, actor and playwright who passed away in Florida on Monday at age 89.

However, what she knows for certain is that their friendship spanned well over forty years.

“I can't tell you how or where we met. I had always observed him on stage but as for an exact time, that I can't tell you. But, we became like family. He and his wife were like parents and mentors — I got married at their yard. His wife Jean, who I call 'Mummy', made all my maternity clothes. You see, they had that kind of welcoming, open house. They loved to invite people around and cook and eat...Mummy gave me a recipe for the best plantain tart. Since Easton dead I have been looking for it and can't find it...it was such a happy home.”

Ellington said the bond with Lee was fuelled by their rural upbringing. He was born in Wait-a-Bit, Trelawny, but spent his formative years in Siloah, St Elizabeth, while she was born in Smithville, Clarendon.

“He was was such a caring person with a fun, rural nature — and that was such a special thing to me as a fellow country person,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

Their bond would further develop when Ellington was cast in in his Passion play The Rope and The Cross.

In a 2011 interview with the Observer, Lee shared the genesis of the play which started as a narrative and which became the inspiration for a ballet of the same name — choreographed by Sheila Barnett for the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) — poems, and a painting.

“When I was about 12 I overheard a conversation between my mother and Aunt Rose who sold bammies on our shop piazza in Siloah, St Elizabeth. They were talking of the joys and burdens of motherhood, and my mom said she knew how the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, must have felt to see him so brutally killed. Aunt Rose's response was, 'But all of us forget that Judas did have a mother, too.' ”

Lee said that remark would haunt him for decades, and he always wanted to do something about it. He toyed with the idea of writing a play on a possible meeting between Mary and the mother of Judas. However, years would pass and even after studies in California, earning a Diploma in Theatre, and years of acting on stage, the play still did not materialise. Then there was work, marriage and children, which would take precedence in his life, but still the haunting statement by Aunt Rose would not go away, and continued to play over and over in his head.

The Rope and The Cross tells the story of the Passion through the eyes of two Jamaican mothers, who double as the two mothers of the Passion, and a possible meeting of these two women. Lee explained that the idea was to make it relevant to “Jamaica, Jamaican situations, and the problems of Jamaican motherhood”. As a result, he dedicated the work to his mother, the mother of his sons, all mothers of sons and all who mother sons and daughters.

The play, which was only performed in churches at Easter, premièred at St Barnabas Anglican Church in Siloah, St Elizabeth on April 15, 1979. The production has gone on to play in churches all over Jamaica and was once mounted in Toronto, Canada. Actor and playwright David Heron remounted the work in New York last year.

Ellington, who was part of the original cast, shared that she played multiple roles, including Judas's fiancée Sarah and a dancing girl “complete with costume made by Mommy Jean”.

“It was a happy cast. Easton brought a care, tenderness and light-heartedness to the process that I will always remember. It showed me that there are truly no small roles because, although I did not have a major role, it was all about the quality of the work. It was so multi-layered and textured that everyone mattered — and it is certainly one of the high points of my acting.”

In this production she shared the staged with some of the icons of local theatre. The cast included Leonie Forbes, Grace McGhie, Marguerite Newland, Bari Johnson, Rooney Chambers, John Frances, Brian McLeod, Peter Hunt, Geoff Fairweather, Errol Smith, Patsy Newland, Alwyn Scott, Munair Zacca and Pablo Hoilett.

“Leonie played the roles of Miss Birdie and the mother of Judas. While we all did well, she inhabited that role...I can see them now. The scenes between the mothers were so powerful. Then there was the music which was selected by Freddie Burroughs. Easton was a master director and he used fabric to create these wonderful moments, such as the resurrection. I remember the time in Falmouth when the production stopped for about five minutes, as when Rooney Chambers appeared from behind the cloth as the risen Christ a woman started screaming 'See my Jesus deh!' She would not stop shouting so we had to pause until she calmed down,” Ellington recalled.

“Some time ago Easton and I were speaking and he shared how much he wanted to remount The Rope and The Cross with some of the original cast. We laughed as I told him I don't know how it will look, as Judas's girlfriend and the dancing girl now has grey hair and arthritis. We both had a good laugh. I will miss my friend.”


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