Monday, June 1, 2009

Munair's Tribute to Stafford Ashani

Munair Zacca's Tribute to Stafford Ashani, St. Mark's Methodist Church, Harbour View, Friday, May 29, 2009


I knew Stafford for almost 40 years. I first met him when he and I, along with Valerie Bloomfield, were cast in a play called A LIBERATED WOMAN written by Barry Reckord and produced by Lloyd Reckord. This was around 1971 and Stafford was still a student at Excelsior High School at the time and Victor his father actually reminded me that Stafford had to get permission from the school to be in the production, especially since the play was of a somewhat "adult" nature.

To this day I still have a distinct memory of Stafford rehearsing the play in his khaki uniform, and me thinking, "Gosh, this guy is so mature for his age!" Not only was he mature, but he was doing a fantastic job with his role, so I had no choice but to really keep on my toes, otherwise this guy was going to act me off the stage, especially since his role was more of a likeable character--sort of very lighthearted and highly spirited.

Anyway, whatever conflict developed between us was strictly in the play because offstage we became the best of friends, and eventually went on to work on several productions together after that for many many years. This play was not only the start of his whole theatrical career, but it also afforded him an opportunity to visit New York, and he later admitted to me that that trip was instrumental in him deciding that New York was definitely the place for him, and he was determined to go back and study there. Well, it didn't happen right away but much later on in his career he did go off to college there, where he studied Film and after graduating, he worked there for awhile in said field. And it was out of that experience that his television series REGGAE STRONG emerged.

But getting back to the beginning, shortly after Stafford and I had been in A LIBERATED WOMAN, I had started to direct, and it wasn't long before I also started to produce for myself, and my very first production was a newly written play called SEE MAMA by Edward Henry, and among the cast was non other than Stafford and there are two particular things I remember about Stafford in that play-- no, three things actually; first of all the set was very cleverly designed by Stafford, the type where you re-arrange all the different pieces each time to create a different scene location--small matter that one particular arrangement almost fell over on the audience one night; the front row people had to quickly stand and catch it--but nevertheless it was a very attractive, effective and workable set. So, that was the first thing, and then there was a moment each night when his character is supposed to weep, and Stafford used to cry real tears--everytime--I don't believe he missed once!

I am almost sure bets were being placed everynight as to whether the tears would flow or not, but they always did! and boy, did that impress everybody, including me--you know, that was like real acting! And then the 3rd thing was Stafford and the motorcycle. In the play, his character rode a motor cycle, a Quickie, I think they were what did we do? We got Motor Sales & Service, who were the agents, to sponsor a Hondo Quickie on loan to the production, and every night Stafford made his entrance into the play by riding from a little distance down the road, right into the auditorium where he parked the bike--this was at the Barn Theatre--then he would disappear round the corner and then re-appear on stage to play his scene. Mind you, some nights the bike wouldn't start--but, we worked around it.

Well, when the production ended, we negotiated a deal with Motor Sales, and Stafford got to keep the little Honda and from that time on Stafford always rode a motorcycle--for years after--mind you, at first, him used to get couple drop well, and bruise up, but he eventually mastered the machine.

So this was 1972, and the very next year, I landed the job to direct a production of the comedy SWEET TALK by the Guyanese writer Michael Abbennsetts, which was about West Indians living in Shepherds Bush, London; and who was the lead actor, but my star performer, Stafford. This play now really started to stretch him, as it was his most substantial role to date, and he truly lived up to the challenge I can tell you. I am quite sure he found added inspiration playing opposite his extremely attractive leading lady.

Come the following year, this is 1974 now, I come across a Cuban play called THE CRIMINALS by Jose Triana, and decide to have a reading with Stafford, Hilary Nicholson, and Anna Hearne--a 3 hander. Well, it was an excellent script which would require some first class acting to pull off, but being the producer, I was very skeptical about mounting this piece, because we all knew that in spite of having the potential for providing theatre of the highest order, it just wasn't commercial stuff and would very likely lose money, so I said, "Guys, forget it!" But Stafford insisted that it was too esthetic a play not to take the risk of it being a flop, and to cut a long story short, he persuaded me to produce it; so, I produced it and directed it, and we had a nice short-ish little run, and in the end broke even. But if it wasn't for Stafford we would never have done that play, and for those who saw it, they would never have had the chance to experience theatre and acting of such high calibre and virtuosity!

Right after that, the same year, 1974, I was again hired to direct, this time a play, written and produced by Carmen Tipling called STRAIGHT MAN about illegal aliens in the USA, and again Stafford was the leading actor, and again produced some fine work along with Christine Bell and others.

Two years later, in 1976, Stafford wrote and produced his very first play, THE QUICKIE, which I had the privilege and pleasure to direct. I don't recall that he acted in this his first piece. The material was based on Stafford's by then acquired knowledge of the business world and the dishonesty and disadvantages that were oftentimes evident. Prior to this period, Stafford had had a taste of conducting a business himself, whereby he manufactured and supplied candy to shops in and around Kingston and on the outskirts. I know about this, because he still rode a motorcycle, which was inappropriate for making deliveries, and who did he call on with a car for assistance? yours truly, and not having either the interest or patience for such a chore, I really didn't relish the idea, but reluctantly obliged him, for after all, he was my buddy, and I did respect his acumen for business, and of course, Theatre wasn't always all that lucrative, was it now!

I don't recall Stafford the Candyman enduring for too long though, but he did go on to write and produce several other plays of far greater importance and scope, one of which I even performed in, called ANANCY & THE UNSUNG HEROES OUT WEST which was a Musical, and had a cast and crew of 25 to 30 members as I recall, and was staged at the Ward Theatre. Then there was MASQUERADERS, BAR JONAH, and FOREIGN MIND.

Stafford was hugely talented and truly dedicated to Jamaican Theatre; he was an important and major contributor, and should be remembered as such. It is my belief and hope that his work will be produced and performed for years to come.

Rest well, Buddy!

No comments:

Post a Comment