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Nesta's Rock: A Fun Case of Marley Lite

Melbourne Douglas leads the cast of Nesta's Rock

Almost 35 years since his passing and with the international spread of his influence, it isn’t surprising that Bob Marley has become the stuff of legend. Now, with the help of the Jamaica Musical Theatre/ Jamaica Junior Theatre production, Nesta’s Rock, Marley has become the stuff of myth.

Nesta’s Rock, despite its numerous problems, deserves some kudos, largely surrounding its costume and set design as well as choreography. It is a light fun, fantasy, lightly referencing the life and music of Bob Marley. Truthfully, Nesta’s Rock has about as much to do with Marley as Marley Coffee, and the claim that it is based on Marley's youth is true only so far as it is about a young man who wants to be a singer. However, it is also possibly the first time that the JMTC has come close to tackling indigenous material, and it is high time they did. 

Nesta’s Rock happens in a parallel Jamaica that looks ripped from Willy Wonka’s imagination. The set and costuming are deliriously bright and colourful, and if nothing else deserve an award for most creative use of a soda bottle. The story follow’s a young man Ness (Melbourne Douglas), and his journey from Nine Mile (where he accidentally arrived but everyone knows his name) to Kingston Town.

Nesta's Rock benefits from deliriously colourful costumesUnfortunately, Nesta’s Rock stumbles and flays about when it comes to plot and direction. The play, though it has some delightfully humourous moments and interesting characters (I’m particularly fond of the annoying three little birds), has about as much plot as cotton candy has health benefits. Additionally, under director Peter Haley’s instruction, the cast misinterprets high energy for constant movement, and so appear to be under the influence of an extreme sugar high, or in need of some Ritalin.

The production definitely benefits from strong creativity coming from the combined skills of Danielle Stiebel (executive and artistic producer), Jodi Ho Lung (co-scriptwriter and assistant director), Samantha Chin Yee (co-scriptwriter and assistant choreographer), Tony Wilson (Choreographer), Deanne Allgrove (technical director), Max Earle (lighting designer), Carolyn Chin Yee (costume designer) as well as Ade Robinson (musical arranger), Carl Lee Scharschmidt (musical director) and Seretse Small (composer).

Nesta’s Rock is musically sound. Its cast turns in generally decent, though uneven performances, a fact easily forgiven as the performers are generally young.Douglas is a great choice and works well for the role both vocally and in terms of creating a charismatic lead.

Marley’s story is strong enough to benefit from a realistic telling as well as fantastic (emphasis on fantasy) re-interpretations, and it certainly is commendable that JMTC/JJT has embarked on the latter.

The Black Heart Man and the Three Little BirdsThere are traces of light Marley and Jamaica in this play, and some of Marley’s most popular tracks receive interesting re-interpretation. Additionally, the choreography is lively and engaging, and has a few spots of Jamaican dance styles to add a touch of authenticity. 

Yet, what is disturbing and more than a little disappointing about the production is how terribly white-washed it is. Even in a musical fantasy, I find it more a little daunting how happy the villagers of Nine Mile are harvesting their cane, because even though Nella (Soraya Dabdoub) declare’s that “nothing bad ever happens in Nine Mile”, the reference to sugar says that clearly it does. One also cannot help that although, this is Nesta's Rock, even symbolic reference to Rastafari is glaringly absent.

Admittedly, it’s probably also this same disconnect that allows for some of the re-interpretation that takes place, such as the intriguing re-interpretation of the ‘Black Heart Man’ character who is initial feared (and here I'm willing to err on the side that it comes from creative license not ignorance).

At the end of it all, the strong visuals and good music employed in Nesta’s Rock wins out over the rest, unless that is, you have the compulsive need of a plot that remotely makes sense.

Nesta's Rock has been playing at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies Mona, and closes today, January 22, 2015.