Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis made me laugh!
If the name is familiar to you, you might say, so what! It is to be expected, given his line of work. He is an actor. He delivers the lines he is given. Right! But I was not in Jamaica. I was not sitting in a theatre watching him in a production. I was reading a reply he had sent in answer to a question I had emailed. Even in this manner, these many miles away, he made me laugh out loud. He is funny! That says a lot of this theatre personality. So what made me laugh?
“Singing runs in my family (but it ran past me) so when some folk sing “off key” I sing “off the island!”
That, is what made me ‘buss out a laff’. I had asked him if he was solely a dramatic actor and whether he had or would do Pantomime. He went on to write, “Seriously though, I have basic competence in singing, enough to do well in two LTM pantomimes (“Sipple Silver” and “Brukins“) …my orientation and background in theatre made it clear that a good actor must be able to dance and sing, at a basic level at least.”
So who is this Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis? What is his background, his claim to fame as the saying goes? What influenced him to take this career path? What has he done in the Jamaican theatre scene? How does he view the scene as it was, is and what if anything, would he hope to see?
“My real entry into theatre began in high school. At Excelsior, drama was a legitimate, valid and respected subject on the curriculum and teachers like Michael Everett, Belinda Durity and Honor Ford-Smith made the experience enlightening and exciting. I performed in the Greek Drama “Lysistrata“. Caribbean classics like “Moon on rainbow shawl” and “Man better man“. I won the best actor award playing “Lakunle” in “The Lion and the Jewel” by Wole Soyinka in 1977 and decided to study at the School of Drama. I remember being impressed by watching productions of Mollierre and Shakespeare as well as richly entertaining and intelligent comedy revues like “8 o clock Jamaica time” At the school of drama there was a distinct emphasis on explorations towards defining the evolving Caribbean theatre vocabulary. We had Caribbean Labs and we experimented with the use of traditional and contemporary folk forms in theatre. I was introduced to popular theatre and theatre in education and the use of arts as therapy and for social intervention. So I am kind of spoilt. My theatre schooling makes it hard for me to absorb things like the “most commercially successful production in years” “PASSA-PASSA”
I remember hearing Lois Kelly that wonderfully dignified and extremely gifted Jamaican actress describe the current crop of plays as being “too bed ridden”. I agree whole-heartedly. I believe local theatre has evolved into a cash driven industry where plays are manufactured, not created; where productions are churned out like cans of sardine – similar and boringly predictable. My favourite production is “DOG” by Denis Scott. I have seen at least seven different interpretations of this work and have acted in two. One was directed by Rawle Gibbons for CARIFESTA in 1981 and the other was directed by Trevor Nairne for a London show in 1985, and each time I discovered new things.
I also have fond memories of Rawle Gibbons directing a production of Shakespeare’s “TEMPEST” in 1983, which gave the show an unmistakably Caribbean flavour. A show called “Man talk” created by Earl Warner also stands out. I remember Basil Dawkins “Same Song different Tune” as a play that treated rural characters with dignity (not as stereotypical buffoons) One of the most powerful plays I have seen locally is “Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine” a riveting ‘two-hander’, about two homeless women who start out fighting for turf and end up sharing painful, funny and touching stories about abuse, struggle, survival and strength.
” The local theatre scene is like the national personality: a case study in contradictions! nuff to celebrate and much to complain about. The scene is vibrant and a lot is happening quantitatively. I believe that we are a bit wanting in terms of quality. When I say quality I am referring not to skills and talents and competencies of the players, but more to the absence of really good material. Content is narrow and shallow and lack range (too much cheap laughter and obsession with the pelvic region, too much pandering to the lowest common denominator).We need more writers and we need more creativity in technology and technicality.
I entered theatre with a healthy respect for the ability of the art to simultaneously evoke responses at the emotional, intellectual and physical levels. I prefer theatre of substance. Much has changed due to preoccupation with economics as the cast must be not more than 3.5 actors etc.”
Blakka is anxious to make it clear that he is in no way dismissing or ‘dissing’ local writers in his comment about the need for new material. As he further explains, “I should perhaps couch it differently. I maintain that the content range and treatment of material is just too narrow. I have profound respect and regard for our able and prolific playwrights like Trevor Rhone, Patrick Brown, Basil Dawkins, Carmen Tipling, and Barbara Gloudon. But I long for something different; theatre that is special, something that bends the boundaries.”
His resume is an impressive one and acting is not all he has done in the theatre. He also “wrote and directed a one act production called “Tick-Tock” for the Edna Manley College with a cast of 12. The show explores urban working class reality using poetry and dance hall music in a non -conventional manner. I have reworked it into a full- length play and cannot get support to mount it. Everyone thinks it is wonderfully relevant and a deep piece of theatre, but says that it is too hard to mount because a cast of twelve is hard to pay! “
I feel the powerful sincerity and the raw emotion in the words. Limited options must be a frustrating thing to an actor. I asked him about the impact or lack of such on the part of the Government in the area of the Arts in Jamaica. Whether, in light of the problems or drawbacks of private funding their help should not be more forthcoming. After all, we have always had their endorsement of cultural undertakings such as the annual Festival, which serve to maintain ‘Things Jamaican” of which surely our homegrown playwrights, their work, etc. are part and parcel
His answer is, “Government must take the lead in ensuring that funds are available to support experimentation and exploration in the arts. That is what cultural development is really about. Corporate entities are essentially interested in numbers, so a play that will have a capacity audience of fewer than five hundred for each night doesn’t interest then much when it comes to sponsorship.
The government has made some moves in the right direction with the CHASE Fund (supporting projects in Culture, Health, Agriculture, Sports & Education) but the red tape is infinite. We need a Foundation that is specifically set up to support the Arts. And we need a proper performing arts arena that can seat a couple thousand people.”
Then he goes on to add:
“Re: CHASE I need to double-check the full meaning of the acronym. I don’t think agriculture is in it. Additionally, my comment about the red tape being infinite is unfair. I have no personal knowledge of this. I actually checked someone who applied for funding to stage a story telling festival and it wasn’t too hard, but the criteria are strict and the paperwork is tough and the competition is stiff as thousands of projects in Environment and HIV/AIDS awareness and other stuff are at the front of the line.
I understand that CHASE also supports the very wonderful Calabash Literary Festival so I don’t want to seem too too hard on them “
It is easy to see why Blakka is successful as an actor. If an actor should be able to take on many parts, it is easy to see how he does it with such seeming ease. His opinions as stated here show someone who tries to be fair. There is deep thinking and there is humour in this Jamaican thespian and he is indeed to be admired.
When asked if he had any final words, he wrote, “I need to acknowledge my Grade 3 primary school teacher Miss Phyllis Welsh as the first person who saw my performance potential and put me on a stage to dance for festival. Also my eldest son Joel will graduate from the Edna Manley College on Sat. Nov. 28 with a Diploma in Drama Education. He is also a karate instructor, 3rd degree black belt and member of the National Martial Arts team (I am very proud of him!)”
Well Blakka we proud a you too star and in theatre talk “break a leg!”