Marcus Garvey (17th August 1887 – 10th June 1940) was a black political leader, orator, publisher and entrepreneur from Jamaica who launched, with his first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey (10th January 1897 – 3rd May 1969), one of the largest mass movements of African people ever. Under the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in Jamaica in 1914, Garvey created a movement dedicated to racial pride, economic self-sufficiency, and the formation of an independent black nation in Africa. He was able to stir strong support for this endeavour among the poor urban black of New York City in 1916, soon after he arrived in Harlem.
Most black leaders in the USA at the time regarded the self-educated Marcus Garvey as a ‘buffoon’ and as an ‘imposter’ especially after he announced The Empire of Africa and himself as President. Garvey was involved in fundraising to establish a steamship line, The Black Star Line (Delaware, 1919), to usher African Americans into their rightful place in the African global economy and to take the members of his UNIA back to Africa. In 1923, after infiltration by the Bureau of Investigation, he was accused, indicted and convicted of fragile fraudulent practices in relation to these funds. As is to be expected, Garvey had many enemies among the white establishment and even the black leaders. The leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) made it very clear that they did not support the Marcus Garvey Back-to- Africa movement. In 1927, after he was pardoned by then President of the USA, Calvin Coolidge, and proclaimed an undesirable alien, he was deported back to Jamaica.
It is not widely known that Garvey’s first foray into world affairs began in Spanish America, Limon, Costa Rica. In fact Marcus Garvey’s activities outside of the United States as a whole are largely overlooked. The people up and down the Western Caribbean supported the Garvey project. He was one of them. Though he only spent from 1910 to 1911 as a timekeeper in Limon at the United Fruit Company, with so many of his fellow Jamaican countrymen looking to better their lives, his short time there was formative in his social, political and economic education as a young activist. His presence as a minority in a Spanish American country fortified him with a foundational intelligence from which to project the UNIA beyond the confines of the US.
Marcus Garvey also turns up in accounts on African American Theatre during the 1920’s. He was responsible for amazing street parades in Harlem and stage pageants alongside other black activists at the time, most of whom disagreed with him but they all, nonetheless, held the opinion that black drama was necessary to rehabilitate the stereotypical images of minstrelsy repeated over and over in the black musicals of the day.
It seems that Garvey’s legacy, though further tarnished recently in the US by a PBS documentary (Marcus Garvey – Look For Me in the Whirlwind, 2001), which Garvey’s son Dr. Julius W. Garvey says is fraught with inaccuracies, fares in a different way in the Caribbean. Garvey, the first national hero of Jamaica, turns up in the history of West Indian theatre as well, as one of the pioneers of this genre. It is reported that in the early 1930’s, in Jamaica, he was chairman of an entertainment group, which produced at least two of his plays, no- doubt promoting his cause of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency for people of African descent. Recent research also shows that it was mainly the far-flung Caribbean community, all through the Americas and into parts of Europe, which was really responsible for Garvey’s widespread popularity and the prominence of his teachings and the Back to Africa movement.
The business of entrepreneurship and total self-sufficiency for people of African descent, through economic means, are significant aspects of Garvey’s teachings that are overlooked. When we talk of Garvey and applying his thought to practice his position on economics is not where our interest is usually lodged.
Any appearance by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey on a platform giving a speech will not only provide a lively and entertaining dramatic presentation but will also seek to put Garvey’s West Indian legacy in perspective. His many varied views and positions on so many aspects of life and living on the islands have scarcely been really looked at widely, let alone reflected on. The kind of imaginative perspective that can be created from such an appearance can work on a number of levels for the general public. But appearances can also be made to schools where students can engage in discussions with Garvey, based on research they would have done with their teachers. The actor playing the part will have in his repertoire different speeches of Garvey’s. The work therefore can be amended appropriately for the specific selected or captured audiences. Emancipation Day celebrations and carnival day interventions are only a few appropriate venues for Marcus and Amy Garvey appearances as both Amy Ashwood and Amy Jacques Garvey ((31st December 1895– 25th July 1973)), Garvey’s second wife, in their own vibrant and informed approaches to activism, were as much an inspiration to black men and women as was Marcus.
It is envisaged that as Popular Theatre, created and presented by the community (ordinary citizens or students), performing ‘MARCUS & AMY’ will attempt to track the whereabouts of chapters of the UNIA still existent, or once alive and vibrant, in the entire Caribbean region. The project can serve as a catalyst for exploring and reflecting on Garvey’s thought in the regional community’s consciousness and even to revitalise UNIA chapters. Starting in Limon, Costa Rica, which is where Garvey started, a play created and presented by the community will explore and reflect on the significance and effect of Garvey’s continued presence and thought on the present day lives of the people. This initial phase of The Marcus Garvey Theatre Project in Limon is supported by the chapter of the UNIA still operating there and will be conducted in English and Spanish.
The Popular Theatre Process developed in this first phase will influence how the other phases in other parts of the region evolve. There are many options. For instance a bi-lingual core can come out of the Costa Rican phase, a small core of facilitators/actors/musicians which can travel all through the region, through both continental and island Caribbean, working with groups to help them create and present their own plays about Garvey and the UNIA in their locations. Another is, of course, for a single dramatist/facilitator, using the methodology developed in Limon, to simply move from location to location animating interested communities, connected or not to a Garvey and/or UNIA past, to explore the themes in question as they pertain to Garvey’s thought and Economic Garveyism.
Discussions along these lines have already begun with interested university departments in Costa Rica (University of Costa Rica, Caribbean Campus) and the executive of the UNIA chapter there. In addition introductory talks and drama workshops have been conducted with community members in Limon. This September the project will go back to Costa Rica to take this phase a step further.
The Marcus Garvey Theatre Project is led by Tony Hall.