- Category: Arts
A white Jamaican who wants no part of Babylon:
A talk with John Blackwood
"What you look like doesn’t matter anymore. It used to be a big thing because you could say well somebody looks like that then they’re from there. And that’s what they’re like. … The variations are huge, the shades of the background … people’ personal meanings, what they thing of themselves. It’s getting all so mixed up. I guess it always was in Jamaica, mixed up.”
- John Blackwood
Looking up at the numerous posters of past productions at Theatre Passe Muraille''s main lobby, you will occasionally read the name of John Blackwood -- as in an early 1980''s show called The Torontotonians. As he tells me in a pure Jamaican accent, "My resume long ''so!" He has been in the theatre for 30 years. But Blackwood readily acknowledges that life in the theatre is not easy.
But Blackwood is no ordinary Jamaican. Born from British parents in Montreal in 1951, he found himself spending his formative childhood years in Jamaica between 1956 and 1970. He attended Campion College; and credits this time in his life as the most influential years on his psyche. He discovered his acting talents at 11 years old through a college play. He later took some theatre courses while in university in St-Catharines, Ontario. But Jamaica has always remained in his soul. He recounts: "All during my career as I came up here, people always ask me: What is that Jamaican thing that happened to you? They’re always interested about that.”
Jamaica Man is essentially a retelling of his life story through the eyes of an often ostracized outsider. “So I just try to make it a little show about my life story, right? … To see if I could put my life story out on stage and see if it finds any resonance. If there’s any interest in it at all. … And there seems to be. When I can get a West Indian audience. Which is hard for me to get. One white man, they don’t want to come right?”
Indeed, Blackwood laments the fact that he often has trouble drawing a West Indian crowd. But when they "do" come, it''s a party. He speaks specifically of some dub poets who came to see his show recently and immediately saw a big difference in their attitude towards him. Blackwood recounts: "A few of them came to see my show and, of course, the attitude changed completely. Just warmed right up. They said: “Okay you understand.” Here’s one white man who probably understands. So that does work for me. But I think that one of the effects of it is that I tend to ostracize myself. I tend to cut myself off. To be a little challenging. A bit of a chip on my shoulder really. It’s difficult because I don’t really move in the West Indian community in Toronto. I move in the theatre community."
Blackwood has always felt uneasy about any form of oppression. But he realizes that being a white Jamaica man comes with takling assumptions about who he is regularly. He says: "My personal story, is what happened to me and what I think about. I can’t make no judgment. If anything, I can sort of judge white people. … I don’t want to have no part in no system. Just what I do personally. That’s all. It’s hard not to align yourself to any organization. It''s lonely business being a white Jamaican.”
Recognizing what he calls the "piracy" which underlies the system of big-money western influence in Jamaica, Blackwood explains: "As a white man, I have a good view on the exploitation process. Okay? And my father being a businessman down there for years, trying to be just a middle-class businessman. And to make a living and how damned near impossible that is."
Blackwood remembers how his cultural identification with Jamaican culture brought opposition from his British-born parents. “Why are you talking like that? You don’t even sound sound like them. Stop talking like that.” And my dad would say: “This theatre lark.” They called it a lark. But after years and years in the straight business and now has nothing to show for it so now he can’t say nothing right?"
Jamaica Man originally showed in 2003 at Theatre Passe Muraille to a very successful first week-end. But the big black-out of that year basically killed the play, and all the other plays showing that week. Since then, he has been taking it to schools. "It’s a one-act thing so it fits into classroom format. And I’ve been trying to take it out to high schools, what they call grade 7, 8, 9 … and it works really well out there. I find a lot of children with West Indian background … they don’t know Jamaica … they don’t. They’re interested in it" Blackwood says.
He hopes that Jamaica Man will attract a good amount of West Indians. "When I get a good West Indian audience, it’s a party. There’s a lot of good jokes and there’s a lot of live music to sing along with and stuff. It’s a celebration. I love the place, It’s like a love letter that turns into a tirade. That’s why I’m hoping to get mixed audiences in there. It’s hard to get the West Indian audience but I’ll keep working on it. I don’t expect everybody to flock to see me. I go out and look for them. This is just one stage of my pursuing this little project.”
See Theatre Passe Muraille site or call 416.504.7529 for tickets
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