Writing Letters to the Dead in Jamaica


March 24, 2014

For eight days, the beginning of March 2014, I traveled to Jamaica to help stage a vigil.

Hannah Town Cultural Group/Revivalist

Throughout the last year and a half I have worked alongside Jamaican scholar and theatre worker, Honor Ford-Smith on her research project; Memory, Urban Violence and Performance in Jamaican Communities, more commonly known as Letters from the Dead. Her work looks at how communities affected by violence, remember, mourn and perform these memories. Specifically, its looks at performances of political protest, community vigils, memorial murals, music and drama, and questions how communities and individuals both complicate and articulate their responses to violence. The project has several notable elements to it which lift the academic work from the written page to the human body. This is done through community-led public interventions, art installations with images of the dead and participatory theatre, specifically the one woman play; Vigil for Roxie.

Vigil for Roxie intentionally brings all these elements together and forces a broader audience to confront the themes and questions at the foundation of the project. The one woman play, is performed by Jamaican actor, Carol Lawes.  It follows the life of  Miss Iris, a woman who’s son and local Don, Roxie, was violently murdered at the hands of the police. In Roxie’s memory, Miss Iris stages an annual vigil. Throughout the play the actress performs the roles of ten characters which together illustrate how different members of the community saw Roxie as both a local leader  and bod mon. Collectively the characters also offer the audience insight into the political context surrounding his death and memory.

This was the first public staging of Vigil in Jamaica and it was important, more than ever, to keep the play strongly rooted in the community. For me this is what made this production like nothing I had ever worked on before. While the play itself was already a collaboratively created script, the installation surrounding it was completely designed by community members, specifically, the Hannah Town Cultural Group. Here is where the idea formulated to make the entire experience a massive community vigil.

At 5:00pm on the dot, the audience started to funnel through the red iron gates of Liberty Hall, an old Garvey headquarter, and were enveloped into a sound scape of djembe rhythms and gospel songs, surrounded by memorial images of those past, hanging from close pins –a literal reminder of their lives on the line. The energy in the courtyard before the play even began was unmistakable, woman mainly, were celebrating, mourning, speaking softly and joining in song.   I knew this was staged, they knew they were audience members but somehow the rift between real life and theatre was blurred and people immersed themselves fully in the experience as performers of memory, then acting on their own.  This is what furthered the political content for me, the themes were no longer embedded in the lines of a script, they were being played out right before me, as a reminder of is urgency.

Im proud to be a part of creating a space that used art in such a profoundly political and personal way and to have learned different ways of letting go control to effectively share ownership. This experience was powerful for me and I left, like i often do, feeling richer and expectantly  filled with more questions than I came with. I now wonder if places of grieving are always reparative? and if not, what right did we have as artists to jog memories where maybe some have wanted to forget?  and further, What questions must we ask when trying to use art in sacred spaces and vice versa?

I know that Ive acted in creating this installation, I participated as a witness to it and now in writing, I am crafting my testimony of this experience and as much as I was present in the space, I was also want to recognize my role as an outsider, both culturally and geographically.  I was documenting a process as a form of art but because of the blurred lines, I was also documenting deeply personal moments. These are the lessons I take forward in my own practice of community work and art.

Please note: These pictures are ONLY from the performance day. For pictures of the process work see here. 

‘Letters to the Dead’ (write a letter to someone you want to remember)

Standing in front of some memorial images
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The play Vigil for Roxie was inspired by the police killing of this young man, this is his mother and her memorial
Drummers: Mbala, Boogsie and Kavon
Guests looking on
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Hannah Town Cultural Group leading the vigil procession
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The revival table
Jamaican Youth Theatre performing pre show ‘Voices Stifling Violence’

Audience members waiting Vigil for Roxie
Carol Lawes in Vigil for Roxie
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Jerry Small onlooking 
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Audience members after the show
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Conny and Sims, staff at Liberty Hall




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