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Lift Up Jamaica - Bouyed by Music and Dance

Onaje Bell - Lift Up Jamaica

The musical Lift Up Jamaica, the combined creative effort of Ashe and Dance Theatre Xaymaca is an energetic production even though the plot occasionally stumbles over the play’s attempts to address the numerous ills of Jamaican society. The play is a feel good musical and its intentions are declared from the title. So don’t be surprised that all the high energy dance and music may leave you with a feeling akin to a mild sugar rush.

Leachim (Ifidel Williams) and Madda Feba (Taunia Flowers) face offLift Up Jamaica is about tolerance and unity and how much the society could achieve. The play presents two sets of conflicting forces, economic (uptown versus downtown) and cultural (Rastafari versus Obeah), which it argues must work together in order for the country to succeed.

Lift Up Jamaica is directed by Michael Holgate, artistic director of Ashe and is based on the concept originally created by Joseph E Robinson. The strongest element of the re-boot, which has been modified to reflect the contemporary moment, is its music. The tremendously energetic and vibrant choreography by Holgate and Barbara McDaniel (director of DTX) comes a close second, but the strong vocals, lyrics and dynamic melodies steal the show.

So not surprisingly, music doesn’t play second fiddle to the book and much of the drama unfolds in the songs. Ashe’s Executive Director, Conroy Wilson, is the show’s musical director and the music, lyrics and arrangements are from a host of contributors including Wilson, Holgate, Rovleta Fraser, and Paulette Bellamy.

Music provides most of the show’s dynamism. It features a host of rhythms ranging form Reggae to old show tunes. It fuses Jamaican folk music with jazz and presents a refreshing arrangement of the Jonkunnu rhythm that begs for a life beyond this production. Interestingly, Jonkunnu symbolises social cohesion. The masquerade, a manifestation of Jamaica’s European and African influences, is presented as a tool for healing and progress. It is therefore disappointing that this idea was not further strengthened by infusing Jonkunnu elements in the set and costuming.

The play’s cast is able to step up to the production’s musical demands. Lead vocals largely fall to Taunia Flowers, Ifidel Williams, Sharona Jones and Petrina Williams. The supporting voices were also commendably strong with Tori Ann Ivy who provided lead vocals on ‘The Bolt the Beast the Young and the Bold’, being particularly noteworthy.

Cast of Lift Up JamaicaSo it’s interesting, that sole member of the cast without these strong vocals, Shayne Powell, is also the production’s strongest performer. Powell plays delivers a strong, endearing, funny performance as, Tom the town’s madman. Tom is a clear descendant of The Fool, used as a device to bring wisdom and often pointing out the short-sightedness of the other characters.

Lift Up Jamaica is slightly handicapped by its good intentions, which causes it to tackle more issues than it has space to adequately treat with. It therefore deals only in broad strokes and while this will not negatively impact on its standing as a piece of edutainment, it lessens its overall artistic value.

Lift Up Jamaica attempts to tackle Jamaica’s class divide. The musical sets the roots of Jamaica’s class contention in slavery and the separation of house and field slaves according to shade which resulted in great distrust between the upper and lower classes. It then, however, takes a massive, running leap from slavery to the present. The result is that it deals in stereotype. In the midst of its grand statements, there is no space for character development.

The production benefits from competent direction. The company has certainly moved beyond the almost manic smile that had been its hallmark in earlier years. The set is minimalist but the use of the outline of Jamaica helps to highlight its theme. Costuming on the other hand, falls far short of the ideal.

The play is well tuned for younger audiences, who are in truth, Ashe’s and DTX’s main audiences. At the end of it all, Lift Up Jamaica is an interesting production infused with talent both on and off the stage and even when some elements fall short, one cannot fault the artistic vision.