Monday, September 17, 2012

Book Review: Leonie: Her Autobiography

Published in The Sunday Gleaner on September 16, 2012:

Title: Leonie: Her Autobiography
Author: Leonie Forbes, as told to Mervyn Morris
Publisher: LMH Publishing Limited

"When you suffer emotional trauma you take the energy from the pain and the loss and the confusion or whatever it is, and turn it right around."

For Leonie Forbes, this maxim applies not just to her performances on stage, but also to the way she lives each day. Interesting, fascinating, riveting doesn't even begin to describe the account of her life. Steeped in humour and poignant anecdotes, this book exudes a myriad of emotions – it will have you smiling, laughing, and, very frequently, stopping to sit and ponder.

It is always a pleasure to see veterans in any field take the time to share from their vast reserve of knowledge and experience for the benefit of their peers and upcoming generations. For the world of Jamaican and Caribbean theatre, Leonie has bequeathed, through her autobiography, wisdom for posterity and a unique voice that gives life and colour to an important period in Jamaican drama.

RICH TONE

Fittingly released in the year of Jamaica's 50th anniversary of Independence, the book provides invaluable historical insight into Jamaica's rich theatrical heritage from the first-person perspective of one of the nation's most beloved personalities. Leonie: Her autobiography is an exceptional literary treasure which will captivate the hearts and imaginations of its readers.

Dedicated to Alma Mock Yen, Muriel Amiel and Leonie's children, the autobiography is written in refreshingly honest and vividly straightforward prose. Interestingly, the English is sometimes broken into what can be termed a 'mild dialect'. However, the transition is so smooth that it creates a conversational feel. You can almost hear Leonie speaking directly to you in that rich, reflective tone that carries wonderfully throughout the book.

She tells of living on Princess Street  with 'Aunt G' (her mother's sister), who played the role of guardian not only to Leonie, but also to many unfortunate children roundabout her. She speaks about early indicators of her theatrical ability – a very entertaining and ironic twist to an attempt at mimicry, and her enjoyment whenever she watched the performing arts – and of a passionate crush on a Senior School teacher.

From its genesis, her worklife has been intricately interwoven with some of the most well-known moments and personalities in Jamaican media and theatre. She was typist for Philip Sherlock, and throughout the expanse of her career, had encounters with the likes of Louise Bennett, Trevor Rhone, Charles Hyatt, Ranny Williams, and Easton Lee. Readers will appreciate Leonie's chronicling of her time at the Radio Education Unit and Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation as instructive and informative, especially since these chapters are seasoned with humorous anecdotes and, in many places, the nostalgia is palpable.

Leonie's experience with and opinion on theatre training will also prove valuable for anyone who has worked in or desires to work in that field. She gives a first-hand account of the thrills and challenges of the profession, detailing her exposure to a variety of roles.

"I think my most successful roles have been Miss Aggy in Old Story Time, Mother of Judas in Easton Lee's The Rope and The Cross and Ojuola in Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blame," Leonie says. She devotes an entire chapter to a detailed description of the effort that went into her work as Miss Aggy, and her near-total immersion into the part. As she states in a later chapter, "A  lot of times my skill was not in making the moment believable but in not getting carried away by it I mean, being able to stop, cut it off."

And this 'stopping' and 'cutting off' of the character when the play is done is an important element of acting. Leonie makes it clear that there are roles which an actor can so strongly internalise that he/she never emerges from the stage as his/her own self. She shares some of the moments when she wasn't sure she could make it through a character representation, along with some of her lighter, not-so-pleasant moments in theatre. For example, the time when "Mas Ran as Petruchio got carried away and gave me the box of my life – I thought my jaw was dislocated. But the show went well".

Leonie gives readers insight into another side of her – encounters with what she terms "the paranormal". She touches on her strong intuition, which she has had from an early age, and how this has helped her over the years. She tells of her love life – the three marriages she has been through, and her relationship with her children, her biological mother, religion, and good friends. She pauses to express gratitude to the many persons who have invested in her over the years, including those she met in her travels to different countries, from England to Australia, Ireland, Germany, India and Trinidad.

There are pictures of Leonie at different stages of her life interspersed throughout the book, giving a strong visual representation of the different periods and plays she describes. Her passion for her family and work can be strongly heard and felt as well, and the wisdom she has gained over the years is undeniable. After imparting to the reader these gems from her life, she ends:

"God is good. I give thanks for family and friends, and the many people with whom I have collaborated in theatre, broadcasting and other endeavours. I am glad to have been allowed a rewarding range of roles. I have learnt from every aspect of my life."

And the reader can't help but feel a sense of gratitude, too, for her life, her story, her voice, and her legacy.


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