Of Black Face and Public Face: Two Actresses in the Jamaican Star System

Jamaican Flag

Release Date

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The mask habitually worn by the actor is likely to become his true face


An interesting perspective from the Greek philosopher (educated, by the way, largely on Egyptian principles, but that's another column). In the unofficial arts hierarchy actors, and stage actors in particular, enjoy a peculiar place they're nowhere as obscure or overlooked as writers or painters are, but they generally pale in comparison to music artistes. Dancers, at least those in the dancehall sphere, have carved out a special space for themselves, even as their counterparts in the more formal dance world remain virtual unknowns.

In Jamaica, there's a star system, but it's vastly different from what obtains in the self-obsessed US. Of course, comparisons are slightly unfair, given the scale and also the fact that, apart from the ongoing cross-over of celebrity screen actors to the stage, most career stage actors toil in relative obscurity.

Whatever the visual medium, Jamaicans like their stars accessible; entourages, publicity hacks and other retinue are for the music biz. It's a common occurrence for random members of the public to acknowledge and even engage the best-known and most popular celebrities - even the music stars - in light conversation, a virtually unheard of (or maybe bygone) practice in the US.

It's against that backdrop that I engage Deon Silvera in conversation outside a busy shopping club in a Kingston suburb. Silvera, of a quiet yet curious demeanour, ready to engage, is one of the best known Jamaican stage actresses and has also done television and big screen work, though her talents contributed to one such, the Denzel Washington vehicle, The Mighty Quinn ended up almost toally on the cutting room floor. Her portrayals span the gamut but are also littered with the kind of scrappy, boisterous urban women that represent today's social reality.

Our dialogue is frequently interrupted by stares, pointing fingers and the inevitable questions and greetings from passers-by, all of which she receives and responds to in good graces. I don't get tired of it she remarks at being on stage. You know this is how our people operate, and in that way, it's good for us as the actors to get that recognition.

Contrast that with the attitude of Andrea Wright, a one-time teacher who is now known across the island as Delcita the name of a character (a type, really, but more on that in a bit) that she palys. Matter fact, Wright's situation lends some credence to Plato's quote, given that while Delcita is universally known, saying the name Andrea Wright might get you a chorus of who? This nickname culture is prevalent in Jamaica, and a generally throughout the Caribbean as well as the American South, tracing its roots back to slavery when families were broken up and original African names were discarded in favour of Westernized ones and other less favourable descriptives.

Ironically, the Delcita character is played in the blackface style that also emerged in the slave period in the US and spread to the UK and her colonies. This coon depiction would be roundly booed in amny parts of the US today, but here, coupled with a healthy dose of Jamaican sayings and contrived comic situations, has made Delcita the #1 draw in Jamaican theatre. Lines stretch around corners wherever her productions play and women and even young girls speak of her as an empowering figure.

All of which has led Wright to disdain the charges (including my own) that she is deliberately upholding a negative stereotype. Speaking on a local radio show, Wright defiantly says Delcita is a way that we can make people laugh and even dish out practical advice from the stage. I don't have time to go back in no history book and fret bout no coon or naything like that. The people not putting that on them head.

This is largely true, notwithstanding the fact that several callers to the show did voice their displeasure with and opposition to the blackface representation and its transmitted values of loudness, ugliness and ignorance. Delcita is big news and big business, maybe not Hollywood-big, but certainly big enough nationally and amongns overseas, many of whom still have the rural-based dunce-head stereotypes still close at hand and to heart.

Editor-in-Chief's Note: Michael Edwards is an Editorial Contributor with The MNI Alive Network

Latest Stories