Thursday, October 11, 2007

WE People - Rhoma Spencer

Actress, Playwright, Broadcast Journalist – a force to be reckoned with

by Nathalie Taghaboni

Where do you begin with Rhoma Spencer? Her accomplishments are many, her talents myriad. She is a one woman cultural bridge to the Caribbean and she flatly refuses to water down or compromise all that she offers to the arts.

“I bound to, must to, have to – return to the region frequently in order to give this country the authentic Caribbean.” says Rhoma in an interview with WE magazine. “I cannot feed off of anything here. This environment doesn’t allow me as a Caribbean artist, to do the work I have to do in order to bring authenticity to the stage. And while I am an Afro-Caribbean woman, I identify with all that is Caribbean, the Dutch, French, Spanish Caribbean, the Arawaks and Caribs – their histories are all part of me. I am very much a ‘Caribbeanist’. Yes I am a Trinidadian but I identify with the entire region.”

Rhoma was born in Curepe, Trinidad and spent over 10 years in Tobago as a child. She studied theatre at the University of the West Indies and later came to Toronto’s York University to complete her Masters in Theatre.

Ms Spencer is the director and founder of Theatre Archipelago which began in 2004. It is the Theatre’s mandate to present work from the pan Caribbean and to this end Rhoma visits and works with cultural companies and artists throughout the islands, including those islands about whom we may not hear much, perhaps due to access, language or other barriers. Rhoma will be heading to Surinam shortly to work with Henk Tjon – a man she describes as ‘”the ultimate Caribbean director”.

During the first few seasons of Theatre Archipelago, Rhoma noted her audience to be made up largely of academics and non Caribbean people – people who were interested in the culture. But over the past two or three seasons she has noticed a shift that brought more and more people of Caribbean descent. “By virtue of the nature of the particular play I am presenting, I would notice the change in audience demographics. If I am putting on a play that is Jamaican or Trinidadian, the audience tends to reflect that. Mind you, some plays and playwrights cross all borders, so for example when I presented Twilight Café earlier this year - a play by Tony Hall, the same author who did Jean and Dinah, the audience was very pan Caribbean.”

Theatre Archipelago’s presentations have all been critically acclaimed by Toronto’s media. “But”, says Rhoma, “now and then you will notice in a review, that there is a lack of knowledge of the culture presented in the play”. The reviewer may see the presentation as an exotic one and niche it as such.

A dream very close to Rhoma’s heart is to create theatre facilities for individual theatre performances with focus on Caribbean theatre. “Canada needs to see the real Caribbean theatre,” emphasizes Rhoma, ‘as opposed to the beaded and feathered Las Vegas or Broadway version that they have been fed for so long. They don’t know us well and we need to change that.”

In 2006 Theatre Archipelago offered a taste of that authenticity at the Caribana parade with a presentation of an ‘ole mas’ band. “Police tried to stop us!” laughs Rhoma wryly. “They thought we were protesters because they just did not know. They were used to the bra and panty mas. We have to educate Canada. We have to tell them about the beginnings, the roots of how we started long before we got to the pretty mas. In essence we are responsible for how we are viewed.”

Rhoma credits Ronald Amarosa as being the one person who turned the tide towards theatre as her career. He was Rhoma’s first director in ‘Best Village’ performances in Trinidad and nurtured in her the abiding love of the stage. “To this day, with all the degrees and international accolades, it is Best Village theatre that comes out of me. It is the truest form of drama and national theatre in Trinidad.”

Information on Theatre Archipelago may be obtained online at

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