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The UWI Singers Dives into History With Opera on Morant Bay Rebellion

George William Gordon and Paul Bogle get the operatic treatment in 1865

Jamaican history is replete with the stories from which great operas can be made, whether they be tales of high romance, intrigue or heroism and the great tragedies that most often becomes heroes (possibly because we often don’t know they are heroic until we kill them). The UWI Singers dived into Jamaican history and pulled out a slice of the 1865 rebellion for their 2015 season of performance. The result was an ambitious and timely work. 

1865 is written by Franklin Halliburton with directed by Brian Heap and choreographed by Michael Holgate. The opera benefits from strong lighting design and generally good costuming which were well designed although occasionally the execution was flawed. 

1865 benefits from strong costuming1865 is an interesting work, and certainly worthy of note. It is particularly note worthy because both Paul Bogle (played by Anthony Alexander) and George William Gordon (Franklin Halliburton) are two of our heroes running the risk of becoming mere footnotes in Jamaican history. The Morant Bay Court House remains a burnt husk while many of us pass the Cherry Gardens Great House without any idea that it was Gordon’s former home. 

The opera is noteworthy for its ambitions and its good intentions, but it also falls prey to those intentions, which rob it of the high drama that would have moved it from a good piece of work to a great one.

Portrayal of the incensed black Jamaicans was more dynamicThe UWI Singers continues to boast strong, dynamic voices and Halliburton is an accomplished and verbose arranger. His wit often pops up as does his willingness to dive into contemporary Jamaican music and explore and examine what is there and reinterpret it for his purposes. So it is that By the Rivers of Babylon, ‘Putting Up Resistance’ both make an appearance and neither feels out of place.

So where 1865 doesn't live up to its potential isn’t in the music, but rather the drama. The first half is heavily distilled of dramatic elements, and the conflict is significantly dampened, as the main characters, particularly the two leads Paul Bogle and George William Gordon are extremely stoic and contained. It is the kind of representation that would have been more expected between Jamaica’s Independence through to the turn of the 21st century. But now, at a time when we accept heroes as flawed human beings, it would have been great to see a more human portrayal of these two men. 

The result was that the portrayal of the ordinary people was far more vibrant, energetic and engaging. Performances by Stefan Morris as Jacko and Roy Thompson as the narrator (especially when he seeks justice with a makka stick wielding) are particularly strong. These characters possibly benefited because Halliburton felt more comfortable taking creative liberties with their characterization, while he was more reticent with the two heroes. 

Stefan Morris' Jacko was one of the more dynamic charactersAs such, the Paul Bogle who is portrayed in this opera is the man you find sitting poised on the former $2 bill, not the man armed with a machete who led a march for justice. Similarly, George is never really allowed to falter or really even rail. He is always contained.

Indeed, 1865 generally sticks to the high lessons to be gained from the rebellion and the sidesteps the massacre that resulted in over 400 men and woman shot and over 300 hanged. 

In the end Halliburton’s 1865 is a good exploration of Jamaican history. This opera, however, much also serve to remind us that it is only one interpretation of history, one that is replete with silences, and so it is not enough. 

1865 is currently playing at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of the West Indies, Mona where it will continue through to the end of June 2015.