Setting Things Straight: An interview with Toronto actor Rhoma Spencer

23 Feb 2006


It only took me a few moments to realize that Rhoma Spencer is proud about where she comes from. She is aware of the vastness of her abilities. And she is confident about what she will achieve and the importance of the authentic presence that she provides for the culture of the Caribbean.

Rhoma Spencer began her career in the performing arts at the Best Village Theatre in Trinidad and Tobago. She credits her impressionable artistic abilities to the solid foundation that the Best Village Theatre was able to provide to her. Now, here in Toronto, un-intimidated by its congested and very competitive performance arts culture, Spencer relies on her humble or preferably unadulterated origins to stride confidently amongst the top performance artists.

The Must See theatrical production of Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine features Roma Spencer and John Blackwood.  They play two women from opposing ends of the social spectrum who fall into an equal state of destitution due to troubled pasts that have weathered their spirits.  Spencer plays a Trinidadian woman who has lived in Toronto for approximately 16 to 17 years. Blackwood plays a homeless Caucasian female Jamaican.  Roma Spencer’s character worked with a Jewish family.  Unfortunately, after approximately 13 years of providing loyal services they no longer need her assistance.  Thereafter, she suffers from a nervous breakdown that contributes to her deteriorating standard of living. AfroToronto.com spoke to Rhoma Spencer about the play and her life in theatre.

What is the message that you expect Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine to deliver to your audience?

Rhoma Spencer:  We all seem to have a kind of commonality at the end of the day that allows us to exist together.  We all seem to suffer some kind of a loss so that creates commonality and it allows for better communication,

What are the dynamics of the relationship that your character has with that played by John Blackwood?

Rhoma Spencer: For the first ten minutes of the play they are challenging the ownership of a property. I look at her [Blackwood’s character] as a Fallen angel because she is trying to bamboozle her way into ownership of a property that does not belong to her. I am refusing to allow myself to be in servitude to her. However, I still feel obligated to take care of her.  Although we are fighting and struggling there is still a kindness there in me. I still have some heart towards her.

When I asked John Blackwood this question he used the “Broken dreams, should be forgotten memories…”  From a psychological perspective some may claim that this phrase supports the suppression of one’s feelings or emotions? What are your thoughts about that?

Rhoma Spencer: In our madness we have and continue to live in a kind of fantasy that becomes our reality.  Sometimes we don’t know when reality stops and when fantasy fits in.  We are almost plagued and informed by our memories be it good or broken and they should be forgotten because they will continue to plague our lives and influence our mental capacities.

You’ve mentioned that the Best Village Theatre (BVT) was viewed upon as a bastard “illegitimate theatre”.  Underdog comes to mind.  Is that how you see yourself as an actor or director?

Rhoma Spencer: No, I worked against the notion of being an underdog.  I found a way to find a commonality between both.  It has more soul BVT because it came from the people.

Is Theatre Archipelago similar to the BVT?

Rhoma Spencer: My life as an artist is perpetuated by that experience at the BVT.  The same soul is expressed because of who we are as a Caribbean nation.  Everyone together, our heritage consists of the culture of many nations, Portuguese, East Indian Chinese.  The images of all those cultures are used and expressed in the art.

You mentioned in your bio that you were not pleased with what was being passed off as Caribbean theatre in the city of Toronto.  What is it that you were not pleased with?

Rhoma Spencer: I was not pleased with the subject matter.  I was not pleased with the treatment of woman by the playwrights.  I found that it was very backwards and outdated.  West Indian women have grown as much as the North American women.  I was not pleased with the relationships between males and females on stage. The males are too dominant, abusive, and verbal.  The women are portrayed as gold diggers; they just want to get money from a man. Then there are the stock pieces coming out of Jamaica .  It was all a belly full of laughter, bad acting and a lack of substance.  Mainly stereotypes were portrayed and issues were not addressed.

Your debut from Theatre Archipelago was the critically acclaimed Mad Miss/Just Jazz.  What was it about this production that you felt made it stand out from the Caribbean theatre productions that had been produced prior to its debut?

Rhoma Spencer: I used the Theatre Archipelago to expose the works of writers.  I focused more on novelist rather than playwrights.  I took stories from the Caribbean. I began with “You Think I Mad Miss?” and “Let Them Call It Jazz”, which were written by Jean Rhys.  I took those works and adapted them for the stage to show the kind of works that exist in the Caribbean .

You’re a very busy woman, between acting, directing, attending to your duties as a member of the Toronto ’s Arts counsel theatre committee, conducting voice workshops and your own Theatre of Possession workshops, do you partake in any other activities that are totally distinct from theatre?

Rhoma Spencer:  I am also a radio broadcaster, a journalist and an entertainment writer for a newspaper.  I have worked with the CBC and I am a part of a group to be trained as a director of radio dramas.  I wish I could be more involved in broadcasting because I really love it!

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