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Jamaica Labrish: Miss Lou's Legacy Examined

Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams are enshrined in the Jamaican imagination

Louise Bennett-Coverly, Miss Lou, remains unrivaled as one of Jamaica’s most important cultural figures. Yet, you couldn’t tell this from the smattering of people who turned out to celebrate Miss Lou Day 2013, September 6, at the space named in her honour, The Louise Bennett Garden Theatre. The Garden Theatre, located on Hope Road, itself trying not so valiantly to ward off the effects of time and limited resources, is a metaphor of the country’s continued failing to fully celebrate those it hails as having made it great.

But while the turn-out was low, the comments from the three panelists part-taking of ‘Cultural Dialogue’ which closed the day was satisfyingly rich. What was particularly striking was that each in turn, Barbara Gloudon, Clyde McKenzie and Dennis Howard, questioned our con(l-r) Clyde McKenzie, Barbara Gloudon and Dennis Howardtinued veneration of Miss Lou for her comedy, a state which contrasted against the backdrop which declared Miss Lou as the “First Lady of Jamaican Comedy”. The title is at best dubious, and as the panelists noted throughout the evening barely indicates the social insight Miss Lou’s work provided, nor the impact she had on the society.

Dubbed ‘Jamaica Labrish: 50 Years On...’, the cultural dialogue was hosted by Dahlia Harris. Acting JCDC Executive Director, Delroy Gordon explained that the series was initiated as a part of the Jamaica 50 celebrations in an attempt to do more than showcase the arts.

It’s addition to the landscape is valid, and it is a shame that more were not there to share in the discussion.

Gloudon’s contribution was particularly noteworthy. She highlighted Miss Lou’s multi-faceted contributions and provided insight into her personality.  

"Louise Bennett drew our attention to our culture and we had to deal with it whether we wanted to or not," said Gloudon, noted for her own critique of the society whether through plays, or her print and radio journalism which has spanned numerous years.Writer, director, and producer Dahlia Harris hosted the cultural dialogue

She noted that when the Gleaner started publishing Bennett’s poetry was one of the first time people began seeing Jamaican English in print. She also pointed out to Bennett’s and another of theatre’s icons, Ranny Williams (Maas Ran) role in revolutionizing the national pantomime allowing it to reflect the culture of the people. She also made the salient point that Maas Ran, is being overlooked, to Jamaica’s detriment.

According to Gloudon, although the term icon is now so bandied about that it is losing meaning, Miss Lou is unquestionably one of Jamaica’s cultural icons.

"Her special thing to Jamaica was not that she made us laugh but that she reminded us that we tek kin teet kibba heart bun," Gloudon said, indicating that Miss Lou herself, felt much pain in her life, especially when she had to depart her native island in the latter years of her life.

“She would have rather been here than in Canada,” Gloudon later revealed. When pressed by a member of the audience, she explained that the Coverleys migrated because of the change in Jamaica’s political climate and no longer a space for her gentle spirit.

"There was a childlike sense about her, because she never believed bad about people," Gloudon said arguing that Bennett had an unbelievable quality. "In Louise's presence you began to feel healed, you began to feel better."

D'Andra Brown perfroms Louise Bennett's 'No Likkle Twang'Louise Bennett penned and co-wrote several pantomimes, including many in the Anancy cycle of plays, which radically shifted the focus of the pantomime from European fairy tales to stories culled from Jamaican folk culture. Her poetry collections include Louise Bennett: Selected Poems and Jamaica Labrish while her stories have been anthologized in Anancy and Miss Lou.

Dennis Howard also underlined that Louise Bennett provided more than humour to the Jamaican landscape. Citing Frederick Hickling, Howard described Miss Lou as a political activist and cultural therapist. He argued that instead of being called the First Lady of Jamaican comedy, she should be called the Queen of Jamaican culture, a title which Miss Lou herself may have gladly satirized.

While his examples stretched his argument at the seams, Howard attempted to show the trajectory of Louise Bennett’s influence on Jamaican culture indicating that her style as well as her work helped to make Jamaicans comfortable with their language and allowed the island's cultural growth. 

"Her use of comedy, I think, was an important tactical part of her armory" Clyde McKenzie argued. He explained that the comedy both took the sting out of some of Louise Bennett’s social critique said as well as created subterfuge so that the elite would not recognize the political subversiveness which her work promoted.Nicole Williams makes the most of story time in the rock garden

The cultural dialogue had been proceeded by a series of performances of several of the most popular pieces of Miss Lou’s. The students and community groups from Drews Avenue Primary, Ardenne High, Clan Carthy Primary, Rousseau Primary, Stars Academy and Exed Community College, amongst others, paraded pieces such as ‘No Likkle Twang’, ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’, ‘Pedestrian Crosses’, ‘Colonisation in Reverse’, and ‘When Trouble Tek Man’.

Miss Kingston and St. Andrew, Jodi-Kay delivered a suite of songs written by Miss Lou, while Petrina Williams delivered ‘Tenky Miss Lou’ a tribute poem. The evening’s performances began with engaging storytelling from Nicole Williams in the Rock Garden.

Despite the numerous performances, it was more than a little evident that many are unaware of her wider body of work. Yet, it also indicated the strength of Miss Lou’s legacy as several of the pieces remain relevant. Certainly the language issue is far from dead and several Jamaicans continue to liberally bleach their faces and voices, adding the twang of respectability.

Miss Lou Day, the date of Bennett’s birthday, was officially declared in September 2002.