Entertainment

Miss Lou for National Hero

Actresses speak on the significance of folklorist Louise Bennett Coverley

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 08, 2019

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If it was left up to actress and broadcaster Rosie Murray, noted Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennett Coverley, popularly known as Miss Lou, would be named among Jamaica's national heroes.

Miss Lou, who would have turned 100 yesterday, is recognised as the first lady of Jamaican theatre, and her writing, poetry, radio broadcasts and performances, primarily with the National Pantomime, have become part of the nation's cultural history. As part of the centenary celebrations her main square in Gordon Town, St Andrew, is to be renamed Louise Bennett Square.

Murray spoke with pride at her opportunity to share the stage with Miss Lou nearly 30 years ago, when the cultural icon returned to Jamaica for a special performance titled 'Miss Lou and Friends' held at the Little Theatre in St Andrew. She noted that evening cemented a long-standing admiration she had for Miss Lou who, for her, had long been championing the acceptance of Jamaican folk culture from as far back as the 1950s.

That for Murray underpins her status and therefore makes her worthy of receiving the country's highest national honour.

“Having spent a bit of my childhood in England, Miss Lou was the person that gave us — myself, my mother and my father — a lot of relevance. The English people were then able to relate to her and what she was doing for Jamaica and everything that was Jamaican. I remember as a child it was doing the Miss Lou poems at any event to do with being West Indian, and singing Banyan Tree. So, coming from back then she has always given us that relevance; so when we came back home we just 'hug up' everything that was Miss Lou.

“Miss Lou gave us that certificate to say patois alright; a fi we something and wi fi love it. It has gotten so much more important as we grow older, and I am discovering that a lot of the younger people relate anything theatre and cultural to Miss Lou; she has been one of the greatest cultural influences in our time. I believe it is time for them to tag on heroine pon her. I don't see anyone else who was doing what she did for us culturally. She was doing this from back in the day, she stood up for what she believed in. She stood up for what she perceived to be a Jamaican original, and she held it right through,” stated Murray.

Award-winning actress Nadean Rawlins, who is currently on stage in Patrick Brown's Straight Jacket, owes her venture into the world of theatre — including performances in the National Pantomime — to the example set by Miss Lou through her work to preserve and showcase Jamaican culture on stage, on television with the children's talent show Ring Ding, and through her writing.

“From a tender age I knew exactly what I wanted to do; Miss Lou made me see that I could do it. I would watch Ring Ding and I grew up being the performer in the house. At performances at 'penny concerts' I was that child who was always up there singing and dancing. Ring Ding just epitomised that for me. To see this woman do this on TV, it made me see I could do this. She showed me that I would do what I loved — singing, dancing, performing. When I went to my first drama class back in the 1980s when I was in primary school, was a Miss Lou poem, so I just grew up on her. Fast-forward to when I joined the pantomime company and that of course, is Miss Lou's home. I played leading lady roles that Miss Lou would have played and that was like my way of honouring her,” Rawlins noted

Fellow actress Deon Silvera, known for her comedic work on stage and television, was equally passionate about Miss Lou's contribution to the development of the Jamaican theatre space.

“To me Deon, Miss Lou is everything,” she declared to the Jamaica Observer.

“It was my second year in high school and my teacher Miss Ferron told me she would prepare me for the JCDC festival, and she chose a Miss Lou poem called Rough Riding Tram. I entered and won gold. I repeated that for a number of years, always winning gold. That Miss Lou poem then led me to a scholarship and the move to Kingston, where I went deep into theatre. So, I always say Miss Lou propelled me into the performing arts,” she shared.

All three actresses shared a concern for the preservation of the work put in by Miss Lou and all were unanimous in their acknowledgement of the work of the JCDC, but were also resolute that there is still work to be done.

Rawlins called for a more concentrated effort to preserve Miss Lou's legacy.

“My concern is how much of that is being taught to youngsters, and how we get them to understand what Miss Lou has done for the preservation and development of Jamaican culture and the way she has paved for a number of Jamaican performers like myself. I know the JCDC does a lot of work, but we have to do a lot more. That will include the local theatre community as well so that her legacy continues and the appreciation of her work grows, and generations to come will know and understand the importance of a Miss Lou. Things are being done in pockets but there needs to be a collective effort to ensure that the impact is felt,” she said.

For Silvera there is more work to be done in the field, but the signs are there that work is taking place.

“We're trying... more needs to be done. The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission is playing its part doing some great things, so this should reap benefits.”

Murray reiterated her belief that the effort to keep Miss Lou's legacy alive should come from the policy level to ensure a long-lasting effect.

“The schools are working to keep Miss Lou's legacy alive, JCDC is doing their best to keep it alive. I see youngsters who are in full flight with their cultural expressions doing Miss Lou pieces, and I don't think they could be doing it with so much passion if they didn't know a little bit of the history. More could definitely be done and that's why I think that perhaps conferring that national hero status on her would accentuate it and bring her to the fore so that all the youngsters who are coming up will know about her,” she reasoned.


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