Jamaica’s Ward Theatre – 1912: STANDING MAJESTICALLY in North Parade

painted a cool powder blue that beckons the


The Theatre’s December 1912 opening was attended by hundreds who witnessed the presentation of, to quote Altamont Da Costa, then a Trustee and Chairman of the Theatre Committee, “a structure so magnificent in appearance, so spacious in its proportions, (and) so artistically finished….”eye no matter the angle
of approach, the Ward Theatre is a national icon. A testament to Jamaican architecture and philanthropy, the Theatre was a gift of Colonel C. J. Ward , C.M.G.,(right) to the citizens of Kingston in 1912. Its architect, Mr. Rudolph Henriques, was a noted artist whose firm Henriques and Sons was awarded the £9000 commission after winning a competition for the best proposed design.

Declared a national monument in January 7, 2000, the Theatre has a long history encompassing the nation’s social, cultural and political lives. Its productions are markers of social history and it has functioned as the National Stage for the Festival Movement. The Ward is also where both the PNP and the JLP were launched on September 18, 1938 and July 8, 1943 respectively.


Right photograph:Located in the heart of Kingston, the Ward is the only theatre of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. At a price tag of £12,000, it is built in a classical style, standing 121 feet east to west, occupying 60,000 cubic feet, with a stage area of 2.146 square feet, and seats over 800. Built at a time when the city of Kingston was recreating itself after the devastation of the 1907 earthquake and many buildings (commercial and ecclesiastical) were commissioned abroad ­ e.g. Holy Trinity Cathedral ­ the Ward speaks to the ingenuity and depth of local talent.

Scaffolding surrounds the Ward Theatre, before its opeining in December 1912.
At right, an advertisement in
the Daily Gleaner announcing the
first play to be staged at the
Ward Theatre.

Made of concrete and steel, it is a sturdy triumph of tropical architecture able to maintain an air of formality while answering the need for practicality in ventilation and acoustics.

For his part, Colonel Ward envisioned the space being used for enjoyment and educational purposes. His generosity saved citizens and the government from a sure quandary ­ how to reconstruct a theatre without using taxpayers’ money. The interior décor of the Theatre has not changed much in format from its original look in 1912 ­ the original domed ceiling is there as are the box seats and fly tower (a design feature that allows sets to be hoisted above the stage and lowered at will). A portrait of Colonel Ward, commissioned in 1912, hangs in the Theatre foyer.

Article by Rebecca Tortello.

The Ward Today

Now run by the Ward Theatre Foundation without an endowment, the Theatre generates some income from retals to other performing groups – the Pantomine Company, Roots Theatre, dance troupes, the JCDC for the schools’ finals…. It receives no regular government funding. It is not hard to understand why the Theatre has deteriorated in lustre. Where murals depicting historical scenes of Columbus once stood there are now empty walls. The Theatre needs a new roof, new parking, new blacony chairs, a new curtain, a new air conditioning system, and a new stage to name a few current challenges.

Interwined with the syndrome of urban decay affecting much of downtown Kingston, the outside environs of the Ward have also undergone a tremendous change for the worse. Audience numbers have routinely fallen as people who live outside of downtown no longer want to travel downtown in the evening and the people in teh community do not embrace it as their own.


Productions At The Ward Theatre

  • The first production, mounted from December 19 -21, 1912, was of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. It was staged by the Amateur Dramatic Club of Kingston. The Gleaner advertisement noted that costumes were identical to those used at London’s Savoy and tickets were sold at Times Store ­ 4 shillings for dress circle and 2 shillings for the gallery.
  • During the 1920s Broadway plays used to travel to Jamaica and when they returned to Broadway they would be billed as “fresh from a triumphant run in Kingston, Jamaica.” Broadway Players proudly referred to themselves as “late of the Jamaican Theatre” because it was a feather in their cap. Theatre has a long history in Jamaica ­ the island’s first theatre was built in the 1750s. The Ward is the third theatre to stand on its present site. The majority of these earliest productions tended to be Shakespearan performed by traveling British Troupes as well as local drama groups comprised mainly of colonials. The two world wars resulted in a lull in the number of foreign acts and a rise in local productions. Jamaican theatre really began to come into its own post-World War II and audiences and actors gradually became more diverse.
  • Speaking to the integrity of the Ward Theatre space, Wycliffe Bennett, noted dramatist, leader of the National Festival Movement and current Chairman of the Ward Theatre Foundation who is currently working on a book on theatre in 20th century Jamaica, stated “until you can say you have acted in the Ward and filled the space with your presence, you won’t have gotten very far.” In addition to the wealth of local talent that has passed this test ­ E. M. Cupedon, Stanley Morand, Charles Hyatt, Ranny Williams, Miss Lou, Leonie Forbes, Oliver Samuels, to name a few ­ other entertainers to grace the Ward Theatre stage include Marion Anderson, Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton (who played Capt. Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty) and Ella Bell Davis.
  • Pantomime has been associated with the Ward for over 60 years. Since 1941 pantomimes have debuted at the Ward beginning at 6 p.m. sharp on Boxing Day, with the exception of one year in the 1950s when the KSAC leased the space to some other company sparking much outrage. One could say the Pantomime has now become synonymous with the Ward. Pantomime can be defined as an English theatre convention that takes tales of childhood and dramatize through song. According to one of its longest participants, Barbara Gloudon, “we made it our own ­ adding our music, speech and stories that often reflect social commentary.” Today Jamaican Pantomime is achieving recognition in books on theatre around the world ­ living testimony to the creative spirit of the Jamaican people.

 

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