Jamaica, Jamaica: Interview with actors and dancers at the New Freedom Theatre

Jamaica, a 1957 musical that contributed to the fame of Lena Horne, but has rarely been performed since, was just staged by the New Freedom Theatre under the direction of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. We asked three questions of the cast members to share their responses to this exuberant musical:

1. What were the most wonderful aspects of this production of Jamaica for you?

2. What did you bring to your role in terms of your skills and your experience?

3. Is there anything else you would like to share that would help readers to get a better understanding of this musical?

Aeesa Neibauer
Aneesa Neibauer

 Aneesa Neibauer (Savannah): Jamaica—remembering those who have come and gone

Working with this cast of people has been a truly wonderful experience.

I am an actor before anything else. When I take on a role, even in a musical, I take it on from an actor’s perspective. I hope to find depth where others may only see singing and dancing. My goal is to find the character’s truth, find out how that makes her an individual, and how it affects the world of the play.

Productions of this kind must not be forgotten. Our director, Rajendra, stressed throughout our rehearsal process that in doing this work we are remembering those who have come and gone—like Lena Horne, Alvin Ailey, and Ricardo Montalban. That is of great importance to me. As people of color, their fight to create their art is what allows me to do what I do today, and I am honored to do this show.

Shabazz Green
Shabazz Green

Shabazz Green (Koli): “We sometimes forget the joy of letting go and following our heart”

I loved the freedom to play with these terrific actors. We got to tell a love story on an island. During the hustle and bustle of life, we sometimes forget the joy of letting go and following our hearts.

My character is an Alpha Male: a protector, a provider, and a lover. While he is stoic, he does feel. I believe I know how to show the virility of the role, but also get to the emotions of his heart—a truth that is contagious for the audience and my fellow cast mates to allow themselves to open up and live their own truths.

We bring to life a forgotten history and culture. The show also provides audiences with a reason to smile and remember love. Watching Jamaica, you will feel lighter, laugh a bit easier, and let your heart and mind open to appreciate what you already have.

Walter DeShields. Photo by Chris Descano.
Walter DeShields. Photo by Chris Descano.

Walter DeShields (Joe Nashua): “A leading man quality of mid-20th century film noir in America

I enjoyed the ensemble nature of the show, the experience of adding my abilities, and my interpretation to the show. A piece like this has many moving parts, and you need every single person to make it go.

As Joe, I worked on bringing a leading man quality of mid-20th century film noir in America, along with the comedic antics that make him more complicated than expected. I do stand-up comedy several times a year in an effort to work on timing and improvisation.

We’re all looking for something: sometimes it’s things we already have and some of us, such as Joe, are looking for the next challenge or the next adventure. Life is about exploration—inward and outward. We shouldn’t run from it. Jamaica allows us to think about what’s out there for us, what’s already inside of us and maybe, most importantly, what’s right in front of us.

Deborah Billups
Deborah Billups

Deborah Billups (Grandma Obeah): “Proud, musical, and sassy Grandma who’s having a blast!”

I love the wonderfully supportive cast. As an entertainer who works with three bands (4AM, 6th Street Quaternion, and Blues Tattoo) it’s been great to have the energy of a talented live band.

As the oldest member of the cast with years of experience in theatre and music, I brought my passion and energy to my role as Grandma. I read one review that said I was too young to play the part, but I’m a proud 60 year old—moving and dancing with the rest of the cast. I even lost weight during the process!

I adore Jamaica, the country, so it has been great to perform a musical comedy about it. I have a flare for comedy, and write a one-woman cabaret show every year. When you combine that with my love of jazz, you end up with quite a sassy Grandma who’s having a blast!

Courtney Roberson. Photo by Kevin Lacy.
Courtney Roberson. Photo by Kevin Lacy.

Courtney “CJ” Mitchell (Quico): “Jamaica brought out ‘Pinocchio— the playful, curious kid’ in me”

The best part about Jamaica is working with a talented cast, live music, and singing. I am working with real professionals, and they taught me about stage presence.

I brought my real personality to the role for Jamaica. I am a good singer and dancer, and I loved the harmony. In acting, I play a lot of serious characters. Playing Quico in Jamaica allowed me to be myself and bring out “Pinocchio”—which is what Mr. Rajendra calls the “playful, curious kid” in me.

Jamaica is an awesome production. It is so awesome that I feel more excited each time that I step on the stage. The show is about wanting things that you might not have, but don’t need. Jamaica proves that the most important thing is having people around you that support you and love you—and I feel the love in the show.

Reji Woods. Photo by Corey O'Brien.
Reji Woods. Photo by Corey O’Brien.

Reji Woods (Cicero): “The New Freedom Theatre is on the rise again”

The cast is the most wonderful aspect of this production. The camaraderie, love, and collaborative spirit of the cast was just tremendous.

Though I never considered myself a comedic actor—that is how I have often been cast! I use that now and am secure in those abilities. I also bring a level of adaptability to the production. Rajendra is a director who layers in the rehearsal process. You have to adapt to the new material while staying true to what has been established.

The New Freedom Theatre is on the rise again. For nearly 50 years, it has been an important institution in the African-American community. I feel the same about Jamaica. It was an important piece for the time period and with this production is also on the rise again. I feel fortunate to be a part of the history of this show and this theatre.

LaTasha Morris. Photo by Morgan Rogers Burns.
LaTasha Morris. Photo by Morgan Rogers Burns.

LaTasha Morris (Ginger): “Push De Button”for a better life

What were the most wonderful aspects of this production of Jamaica for me?The historical aspect. I was first introduced to this musical in high school through a song we performed (“Push De Button”). It was so much fun, the lyrics were comical, yet expressed hope and expectation for a better life. I wanted to know more. Who knew—15 years later this is where I am now.

What did I bring to this role in terms of my skills and experience?A few things: my sense of humor, my vocal abilities, and my work ethic.

What I love most about this show is that it will not only make you laugh and fall in love with the cast, but the themes in this story will connect historical and current events.

Sanchel Brown. Photo by Cory Daniels.
Sanchel Brown. Photo by Cory Daniels.

Sanchel Brown (Dance captain): My spirit from the U.S. via Senegal to Jamaica

I enjoy the dancing in Jamaica because it is reminiscent of the productions I watched as a child, such as Stormy Weather. My admiration and connection to Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey has come full circle while performing in this production.

My experience as a professional dancer with Urban Bush Women as well as my dance studies in Senegal, West Africa, gave me innumerable experiences to create an authentic experience as a woman of the Caribbean on stage. I always hope to fill the audience with a spirit they will remember. As dance captain, I always strive to give my cast the belief that no matter what discipline they come from, we all can move together as an ensemble.

I thank my mother Gwen Brown for being my biggest supporter and for encouraging me as a child to never give up and to always do the homework for my craft.
[1346 North Broad Street] June 15-26, 2016; freedomtheatre.org.

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