Trevor Rhone’s Visit to Harvard
by Professor Charles Nesson
I am pleased to report that the first cultural exchange sponsored by the Harvard Jamaica Association proved a delightful success. Sponsored by our association as well as by the Black Law Students Association and Saturday School, Trevor Rhone helped bring Jamaica to Harvard on two successive evenings. Trevor is Jamaica’s foremost playwright, best known as the co-author of the movie script for The Harder They Come, and as the author of Old Story Time and Smile Orange. His latest film, One Love, will soon debut at the Cannes film festival.
Trevor arrived last Wednesday afternoon, greeted by unusually cold April weather. He stayed at Apthorp House as a guest of Professor and Dr. Palfrey, the Housemasters of Adams House. Apthorp is the housemaster’s residence, a magnificent colonial clapboard house somewhat reminiscent of Devon House, fronting on a beautiful but not yet blossoming garden in the middle of the Adams complex of brick buildings.
On Thursday evening, an audience of students and non-students, black and white, post-graduate and undergraduate, Jamaican, Caribbean and American, gathered in the Vorenberg Classroom at Harvard Law School for a showing of The Harder They Come. I introduced Trevor, invited everyone to grab a Red Stripe and popcorn, said a word about our association, and let the film run (actually a brand new DVD that Trevor brought with him). The screen was big, the images crisp, the sound system great, and the audience with it, laughing, absorbed, occasionally singing along, reminding me of the good old days when I first watched this wonderful story of a Jamaican country boy’s quest for fame at the Orson Wells Theater in Harvard Square. Remarkable, really, how current the film remains. Not a frame of it seems dated. The music, the cinematography, the scenes, the humor, the story, all have the freshness of today. Occasional subtitling, presented intelligently only at points when the patois gets a bit hard to follow, gives those in the audience who are not familiar with the language very helpful assistance in following the plotline of the film (compliments to the producers of the recently re-issued DVD). At the film’s conclusion Trevor once again stepped to the front of the room and talked with us about where the story had come from, how the film was made, how enthusiastic the reception of the film had been in Jamaica, how important it was for Jamaicans to have their own film heroes, when there would be a Harder They Come II, and such as that. Trevor spoke in that quite amazingly deep diction-perfect voice of his, completely at ease. The audience loved the whole experience. After it ended, Trevor spent at least another twenty minutes signing posters and having his picture taken with students. A late dinner afterwards at Temple Bar with the student organizers of the event ended the evening at midnight.
Friday night’s event was even better. Trevor read Bellas Gate Boy, his latest play, to a packed audience in the Adams House common room, many sitting in the window-box benches when we ran out of chairs. If you haven’t experienced this play, look for the opportunity. It is an autobiographical account of Trevor’s path from the rural environment of Bellas Gate, the youngest of twenty-three children, touched with a passion for theater, to an English theater school, then back to Kingston. It tells a story of struggle with race prejudice and quest for identity. It is intimate, warm and funny, its narrative altogether engaging. I had seen Trevor perform the play on the Barn stage in Kingston, backed with sound effects and props. Now here he was, reading it from a lectern in way that I found even more compelling. This was storytelling, full of issues and feelings with which all in the audience could identify. Here, also, was a lesson in reading. All of Trevor’s actor’s skill went into it, animating the story without taking us out of it. The high point comes when Trevor recovers from a sudden and severe illness to play God in Green Pastures with all of his white schoolmates in blackface.
At the conclusion of his reading the audience gave Trevor a standing ovation. Then we asked him to sit down and talk with us. Questions poured out, did he ever confront his family about their racism, why did he come back to Jamaica, how does one find universal appeal in local stories? Many of the students in the audience could identify closely with Trevor’s story. They, like him, were away at school, issues of color all around, the question of whether to stay or go back home after school pressing on them, what to work on, how to find their passion. Again, a wonderful evening, truly an intellectual and cultural event. Thank you Trevor. You represented Jamaica extremely well and made your mark at Harvard.