One for the ages Playwright Trevor Rhone leaves lasting legacy

Published: Sunday | September 20, 2009

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

The late multi-talented theatre practitioner Trevor Rhone was planning several big projects before he died of a massive heart attack last Tuesday.

One was a December production of his most-admired play, Old Story Time. The other was the formation of a standing company of actors whose repertory would be Rhone's plays and who would be able to play anywhere in the world at short notice.

This The Sunday Gleaner learned from director of studies at the School of Drama, Eugene Williams, the day after Rhone, the internationally acclaimed playwright, producer, director, actor, screenwriter and teacher died, aged 69. He had suffered a minor heart attack some years ago.

Tributes for his contribution to Jamaican, and indeed Caribbean, theatre and condolences to his family have been flowing throughout and into Jamaica, for not only have tens of thousands in the island seen Rhone's 20 or so plays and films and studied them in local schools and universities, but his works have delighted even larger numbers abroad.

Internationally, his best-known work is without a doubt the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which he co-wrote with the late Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell. It has been shown in cinemas around the world continually since its release. Just two weeks ago, the Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts staged a musical based on the film in Miami and it got excellent notices.


For his co-written film script of Milk and Honey (1988), Rhone earned The Genie Award (for Best Original Screenplay), Canada's highest film honour. Another of his very popular films is Smile Orange, which is based on his stage play of the same name. That hilarious comedy set in a sleazy northcoast hotel launched Rhone as a national figure in the early 1970s and ran for a record (at the time) 245 performances. Other plays of his, most notably Old Story Time, had even longer runs.

Others of his popular, as well as critically acclaimed plays, are School's Out, Two Can Play and Bellas Gate Boy. The latter refers to the St Catherine district in which Rhone was born in 1940, the 23rd and last child for his father, and where he spent his childhood years. On the day before he died, Rhone and his brother Neville visited the district to see the basic school the playwright had recently helped to set up and named after his mother and an aunt.

Rhone said he wrote his scripts "to mirror the lives of the ordinary man, and to reaffirm his strengths in such a way that he learns to diminish his weaknesses and to believe that he can make a positive difference in his society".

The statement sounds serious, and Rhone was serious about his work. Trinidadian theatre critic, producer-director Judy Stone wrote of him: "He is a rare breed; the serious writer with the common touch."

In a published interview with Professor Mervyn Morris, the playwright said that while doing research for Smile Orange, he spent seven days talking to a former hotel waiter and making "reams and reams and reams of notes".

It was important to him, he explained, to get his facts right. "I panic if I should ever say something that was not true, or not real, in terms of my work. So I check just about every detail," he said.

His seriousness was evident, too, in his teaching. During a 2003 playwriting class at which this Sunday Gleaner writer was present, Rhone got annoyed with one participant who had not done any preparation for the class and declared that he was turned off by students who were not committed.

When the topic turned to creating characters, Rhone, speaking with characteristic energy and humour in his trained, deep, rich voice - his speech, as always, a shade too precise - declared, "Characters must be allowed to write their own scripts."

He confessed Old Story Time took him five "painful years" to write and told of various structurally flawed versions which ended up in the waste basket. He also spoke "with humility and pride" of Miss Aggie, the major character of Old Story Time, as "one of the best protagonists ever written." Certainly, she comes across as a very real person, one willing to write and capable of writing her own script.

reluctant to produce

Rhone was a major playwright who knew his worth. Nevertheless, in recent years, he has not produced a major new play (Positive, produced in 2008, is a didactic work written on commission to promote safe sex). Why? A friend and fellow playwright told The Sunday Gleaner of knowing that Rhone had a new play "in a drawer", but was apparently reluctant to produce it because he was unsure of the reception it would get with the current 'roots play'-loving audiences.

Was that the same play Rhone told the 2003 playwriting class he was working on - a play about the relationship between political tribalism and social chaos? Some researcher will eventually discover the answer to that question, for the research work, at high school and university levels, which began on Rhone years ago, will continue.

a black screen icons

Rhone received many national awards from the Jamaican government, including Commander of the Order of Distinction and the Prime Minister's Award for Lifetime Achievement. In a July 2007 online American poll, he was voted third among the top 100 black screen icons of the past century, placing third behind Sidney Poitier, who was in second place. Denzel Washington topped the poll. Spike Lee and Morgan Freeman placed fourth and fifth, respectively.

At Rose Bruford College, in Kent, England, Rhone studied acting, starting off weakly, but eventually finishing at the top of his class with seven distinctions and one credit. The turnaround came when he was inspired by the "I am the greatest" chant of boxer Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali.

Rhone was one of the chief forces behind the phenomenal growth of Jamaican theatre from the early 1970s, and he is owed much by the current crop of playwrights, producers and theatre practitioners, generally.