Leonie Forbes, ‘the consummate artiste’ passes at 85
Leonie Forbes is seen at last year’s production of excerpts of The Rope and The Cross, staged at Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica studio in St Andrew. (Photo: Stuart Smellie)

Jamaican actress and broadcaster Leonie Forbes died on Tuesday bringing to a close a lifetime of excellence that made her an icon in media and the performing arts. She was 85.

A few hours after Forbes’ passing her close friend, Fae Ellington, herself an actress and broadcaster, remembered the woman she labelled “the doyenne of Jamaican theatre” as “the consummate artiste.”

“I remember her as an exquisite performer — her timing, her approach to preparation; when we were supposed to get to the theatre for call time — it’s an hour before the start of the show — Leonie is going to be there two, two-and-a-half hours before,” Ellington told the Jamaica Observer on her way home from a poetry book launch at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Ellington admitted that while she had learnt of Forbes’ death earlier in the afternoon, she knew that her fellow thespian would not have wanted her to miss the poetry book launch as she would have insisted that “The show must go on.”

FORBES... the doyenne of Jamaican theatre

“She was also one of the people that I looked up to, because when I was at the Jamaica School of Drama, which was under the auspices of the Little Theatre Movement, and she had returned from Australia, she taught us one of the modules. So I have experienced her on many levels — as a teacher at the Jamaica School of Drama [and] as a broadcaster, [because] it was Leonie why I ended up full-time in broadcasting. I had left my job as a recreational and cultural officer in the prisons, did not know what I was going to do. I remember she had taught me and she put the request through to Dennis Hall, so as a broadcaster she affected my life as well,” Ellington said.

Hall was one of the first voices at Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) where Forbes, in addition to presenting radio and television programmes, headed JBC Radio 2, as well as the company’s Department of Theatre which produced plays for radio and television.

“We became fast friends, even though she was 16 years older, and she was my son’s godmother,” Ellington shared, adding with a chuckle “Whenever we did a play — people like Ruth Hoshing, me, Barbara McCalla, Grace McGhie — if Leonie did a play that year wi know seh wi nah win nuh award. And she a wi dear friend, enuh.”

Describing Forbes as a “method actor”, Ellington noted that she had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, after starting here in Jamaica “with people like Noel Vaz”.

That method acting talent, Ellington said, was demonstrated in Forbes’ role as Judas’s mother in Easton Lee’s stage production The Rope and The Cross, which is traditionally mounted at Easter.

Last year Forbes played the role in excerpts of the play directed by Ellington at Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica studio in St Andrew.

A biography posted on the National Library of Jamaica website states that Leonie Evadne Forbes was born on June 14, 1937 and grew up in Kingston as an only child. She attended St George’s Preparatory School, Merrywood Elementary, Mico Practising School, Kingston Senior School, Excelsior College, and Durham College.

Her first job after leaving school was with Sir Philip Sherlock as a typist at the then recently incorporated University College of the West Indies. After a while she went to work with playwright Barry Reckord typing his plays and at times accompanying him to the studios of the Government Information Service (now Jamaica Information Service) to watch the recording sessions.

It was there that she got her first exposure to radio as she started to do parts in the programmes produced for government broadcast.

When the now defunct JBC started in 1955, Forbes became an announcer. She was one of the first voices on the radio along with Hall, Desmond Chambers, Erica Allen, and Beverly Anderson.

The late Rita Coore, who Forbes said was one of the influential people in her life, heard her on the radio and decided to give her speech lessons. Coore said that Forbes had a charming little voice, but was doing some dreadful things to the language.

She eventually went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she spent six years of study and practice pursuing a diploma in radio television and stage. She also worked on scripts for British Broadcasting Corporation’s Caribbean service where she did works on Jamaican lifestyle.

Forbes appeared in several of the academy’s productions, including the pantomime Cinderella. She also played in Unknown Woman of Arras, Days of the Lion, and Antony and Cleopatra in which she was the lead female actor.

On her first appearance in professional theatre, Busha Blue Beard, a Lloyd Reckord production, in April 1962, a London critic, Kenneth Tynan, reported that Forbes put on ‘a bewitchingly ingenious performance…as a crystal ball trainee’.

In 1966, on completion of her training, Forbes returned to JBC, but two years later she left for Australia with her husband Dr Keith Amiel who, at the time, was doing research in veterinary science at Queensland University.

While there she appeared in the production of the Shakespearean play Merchant of Venice. She also took part in ABC radio plays, taught drama at three Brisbane schools, and worked as a librarian for International Business Machines Corporation Australia Limited.

When she returned to Jamaica in 1970, Forbes went back to JBC where she worked as a producer/presenter for television. In 1972 she spearheaded the development of Radio 2 JBC FM and started and ran JBC TV Drama Work Shop, which produced, among other programmes, Stronger, A Scent of Jasmine, and Let’s Say Grace — a screenplay which she wrote and produced herself.

In May 1976 Forbes was appointed JBC’s director of radio broadcasting.

Forbes has played leading roles in 12 pantomimes and has acted in plays such as Sea Mama, Miss Unusual, Old Story Time and Champagne and Sky Juice. She has also appeared in films such as Children of Babylon (1980), Club Paradise (1986), The Orchid House (1991), Milk and Honey (1995), What My Mother Told Me (1995), and Soul Survivor (1995).

Forbes also co-authored with Alma Mock Yen a book called The Re-Entry Into Sound, a standard text used to train broadcasters across the Caribbean.

In September 2012 she launched Leonie: Her Autobiography at Little Theatre in St Andrew. The book is a collaborative effort between Forbes and university lecturer/poet Professor Mervyn Morris, covering her life, as well as her work in theatre and broadcasting.

She was honoured with the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican Government and a Musgrave gold medal from the Institute of Jamaica.

On Tuesday night, actress, broadcaster and playwright Dahlia Harris said that Forbes set the bar at the highest level.

“I was astonished that she consistently hit that mark and even more amazed that she was willing to help others achieve that standard. As members of the local film, television, theatre and radio industries we absolutely adored her. Miss Lee, Auntie Lee, Auntie Leonie was our great love. We have lost a national treasure,” Harris said.

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