The Monday Night Theatre Forum on March 14, featuring T&T-born, Canada-based actress Rhoma Spencer, drew the biggest crowd of the series thus far. She is a product of the Best Village school of theatre, which she credits with teaching her the traditions of T&T, especially traditional Carnival characters.
Spencer is probably best known in T&T for her role as Dinah in Tony Hall’s “Jean and Dinah.” It came about while she was studying at UWI, St. Augustine. Hall wanted to write about the prostitutes, but from a woman’s perspective. Spencer and fellow student Susan Sandiford were both fascinated by the older prostitutes, and would make friends with them and listen to their experiences. Hall teamed up with them and would videotape Spencer and Sandiford talking about the women’s’ experience in character. Spencer said it was interesting that all the women they talked to died within a year or so of the play being put on. She played the character of Dinah blind because she had an aunt who had lost an eye during a steelband clash, and so she wanted Dinah to have lost an eye in the same way, and Jean to have been the one who blinded her.
“Taking Jean and Dinah to New York was a fantastic experience. We had to change into our publicity costumes in the airport, and when we went outside, we found that Sparrow was our chauffeur and there were paparazzi and news crews. We went around to rum shops and hawk-and-spit bars, and there were people who believed in the characters so much they were criticizing Tony Hall for having Dinah outside in her condition.”
Spencer said when she took the play to New York again in 2014, this time with Penelope Spencer, she was given two proclamations, one from the mayor of Brooklyn, New York and the other from the White House, for her services to theatre and 20 years of doing Jean and Dinah.
Before going to UWI, Spencer got her start with Barataria Community Council from 1980 to 1999, directed by Ronald Amoroso. She went on to work with the Caribbean Theatre Guild, where she met Pearl Eintou Springer and Patrick Cambridge. Spencer recalled being pestered by Springer to leave Best Village, which was not considered “legitimate” theatre.
Spencer was also a member of the National Theatre Company, and did several commercial theatre plays with different production companies, including the Playhouse Company with Godfrey Sealey, Bagasse Company, Raymond Choo Kong Productions and Canboulay Productions. During this period, she was working at Inland Revenue and later at the Government Broadcasting Unit as a radio announcer.
In addition to her work in T&T, Spencer has been working in Canadian theatre since 2001. She first worked with the AfriCan Theatre Ensemble, but left after a few years to form her own company, Theatre Archipelago, to promote Caribbean theatre, which she ran until 2012. She then went on to perform with Black theatre companies Bcurrent and Obsidian Theatre Companies, and Nightwood Theatre.
Spencer started out producing plays in T&T, because, she said “I always felt that if I can’t get the roles I want to do, then I could as well do them myself.” Her first production was Night of the Wolf with KVR Productions, and she also did Master of Carnival with Barataria Community Council. Her next production, in Canada, was a musical called Obeah Opera, about the Salem Witch Trials. She also produced “Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine,” both in Canada and T&T. She was able to perform it in Stollmeyer’s Castle, which was a huge concession at the time.
In addition to her work as an actress and a producer, Spencer was a “play creator” for “Less than A Man,” and “Carnival Medea – A Bacchanal,” which got four out of five stars when presented at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2015. She thinks the real test of the play will be in T&T. She does not consider herself a playwright, as a lot of her writing comes from improvisation and research, which she said is not typical of playwrights she has met.
Spencer was a Soca Monarch Finalist in 1987 with “Ring a ding ding.” She is also a Carnival Arts practitioner, usually portraying a Blue Devil or a Paper Doll. She describes herself as a raconteur, comedienne and MC, but definitely not a stand-up comedian. Her most recent role was as TanTan Britan for the Barrack Yard Experience in T&T for Carnival 2015 and 2016. In her spare time, she is a chef, specializing in black cake, ponche de creme and pastelles, and does catering between contracts.
She said she continues to study her craft, and echoed the sentiments of the previous speakers,
“You don’t get up and become an actor, no more than you would become a doctor or an engineer. You have to do continuous training and fine tune your art.”