Trevor Rhone, who has died aged 69 of a heart attack, was Jamaica's most celebrated dramatist. As co-author of the screenplay of The Harder They Come (1972), he helped bring the music and culture of Jamaica to overseas audiences, though at home and throughout the Caribbean he was better known for stage plays such as Smile Orange, a farcical indictment of the tourism industry, and Old Story Time, a complex work exploring the predominant contradictions inherent in postcolonial societies. Hailed as "the great storyteller who makes words sing" because of his keen ear for naturalistic dialogue and ability to write in the everyday vernacular of Jamaican dialect, Rhone was also an actor, producer, director and educator.
He was born in Kingston and raised in Bellas Gate, an isolated hillside community in rural St Catherine. He was the youngest child of a very large family, as his father, a farmer who married twice, had 23 children. Although Rhone's childhood was impoverished, he always recalled Bellas Gate with fondness, noting that the discipline fostered by his parents and teachers instilled in him a desire to succeed. Rhone retained strong ties with the district and recently refurbished its elementary school.
During the mid-1950s, while attending Beckford and Smith's secondary school in Spanish Town (later known as St Jago high school), Rhone discovered the theatre and became actively involved in the Secondary Schools Drama Festival, as well as the annual pantomime staged by the Little Theatre Movement. After graduation, he began writing radio plays for the newly established Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) and, in 1960, went to London on a scholarship to attend the Rose Bruford Training College of Speech and Drama, having been pointed there by the Trinidadian actor Edric Connor. Returning to Jamaica three years later, Rhone accepted a teaching post, but was discouraged by the low pay and returned to England, where he soon tired of the limited roles available for black stage actors. Back in Jamaica in 1965, he formed a dramatic arts group, Theatre 77, with Yvonne Jones-Brewster and other colleagues, and later opened the Barn Theatre in a converted garage.
Staging local productions at the Barn and writing pantomimes in Jamaican dialect, Rhone supported himself through teaching, but stopped this in 1969 to concentrate on writing. His first stage play, The Gadget, explored the tensions that developed between an illiterate countrywoman and her urbanised, educated son.
In 1970-71, Rhone collaborated with Perry Henzell on The Harder They Come, the acclaimed cinematic masterpiece about a country boy forced into a life of crime and violence by the dehumanisation of the city. With Jimmy Cliff in the lead role and a reggae soundtrack featuring Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals, The Harder They Come made a tremendous impact overseas, but by the time of its official release in 1972, Rhone had already achieved greater glory at home with Smile Orange (1971), a biting satire written largely in dialect that exposed Caribbean tourism as a stilted series of duplicitous exchanges, its machinations mired in exploitative greed, envy, and stereotypical assumptions about race; like much of Rhone's work, it used humour to explore deeply troubling subjects.
Rhone has said that, while on a date in a local bar, he was approached with a limited offer of financial backing to turn Smile Orange into a film, which is how he ended up directing the 1976 cinematic adaptation. By then he had written the plays Comic Strip, Sleeper, and the celebrated School's Out, the latter an upfront condemnation of the deficiencies of the Jamaican educational system. Another triumph came in 1979 with Old Story Time, which explored changing attitudes towards race and social class in post-independence Jamaica, and the inherent tensions between the ways of isolated country folk and their educated, cosmopolitan offspring. In addition to enjoying an extended run in Jamaica, Old Story Time toured widely throughout the Caribbean and north America.
The 1982 stage play Two Can Play, in which a couple's marriage is severely tested when they flee Jamaica's political upheaval for a new life in the US, was also highly critically acclaimed, and, in 1988, Rhone received a Canadian Genie award for the screenplay of Milk and Honey, a film about the tribulations facing a Jamaican immigrant in Toronto and her estranged young son.
In 1996, Rhone became a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and was later a visiting lecturer at US institutions such as Harvard University and Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts, and Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania. In 2002, Rhone produced the autobiographical Bellas Gate Boy for the Calabash literary festival, which he later toured as a one-man show, and wrote the screenplay for One Love (2003), which starred Bob Marley's son Ky-mani as a rasta musician who has a problematic love affair with a Christian. Rhone also received many civic awards during his lifetime, most notably being made Commander of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government. He was said to have been working on several projects at the time of his death.
He is survived by his wife, Camille, and children Traci, Trevor Jr and Jonathan.
• Trevor David Rhone, playwright, screenwriter, actor, director and teacher, born 24 March 1940; died 15 September 2009
The Plot of Trevor Rhone’s Old Story Time
Trevor Rhone’s play Old Story Time portrays a Jamaican storytelling situation in two acts with one and six scenes, respectively. Pa Ben, who is the narrator as well as a character in the play, tells the story of the Tomlinson family. Using flashbacks, Rhone stages events in a time span of around thirty years, beginning with Len Tomlinson’s boyhood. Miss Aggy, Len’s mother, puts him through school with rigid pressure and is obsessed with the idea that he should marry Margaret, the minister’s light-skinned daughter, in order to advance his social status.
While abroad on a scholarship, Len keeps only scarce contact with his mother. When she finally learns that he has married Lois, a black woman, she is absolutely infuriated and convinced that Lois could have worked this only with a spell. Len returns home as a successful banker and sets out to ruin the business of George McFarlane, a light-skinned upper-class former schoolmate now involved in dubious financial dealings. When Miss Aggy speaks up on behalf of George, whose family she still holds in high regard, this results in a serious confrontation between mother and son. Miss Aggy again blames Lois for using magic to alienate her son from her and decides to employ a fatal obeah spell against her daughter-in-law.
The climactic final scene of the play reveals the real reason for Len’s hatred against George: in school Len had once written a love letter to Margaret, which she and her boyfriend George considered an impudence of a “black, ugly, little big-lipped” (83) boy. They set Len up to be thrashed and utterly humiliated by George and his friends. Miss Aggy also learns that it was Lois’s family who took care of Len right after this traumatic experience, which finally makes her accept her son’s wife and realize her own wrongs. In a happy ending, “Len’s family comes together in a cathartic night of repentance, forgiveness, exorcism, and love” (Stone 46)....