March 28th 2023 marked the centennial of the birth of Ralph Leonard Errol Jones well known in the annals of our Theatre as the actor who created many Walcottian characters Afa (Sea at Dauphin); Mano (Drums and Colours); The Devil (Ti Jean and his Brothers); Makak (Dream on Monkey Mountain); Charbon (Franklin); Catalinion (The Joker of Seville); Deacon Doxy (O Babylon); Otto (Beef No Chicken)
His work in Theatre is legend from Suriname to Jamaica, The USA and the UK According to the celebrated Caribbean author George Lamming:-
“Errol Jones was probably the finest actor in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and most certainly the greatest of his generation. “His performances,” noted Lamming, “gave Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s work a lucidity which few other actors could have achieved; and he carried this distinction with a personal grace and modesty which deepened the loyalty of all his admirers …”
(Lamming Calls for Lasting Memorial for Jones: Rhonda Thompson: Nation News)
“He has so many gifts,” said Laveau. “The gift of voice, the gift of presence, the gift of experience – and he’s so generous with them.”
Copyright © MEP Publishers
Errol has left a collection of Playbills and Programmes of Dance and Music performances over the years. His family is pleased that NALIS has agreed to accept them. They yield information via names of cast and crew, the countless groups of artists that produced shows, the short runs of shows, the look and feel of the programmes, many typed on stencil then rolled off, sometimes dated sometimes not, sometimes even handwritten; the advertisers or absence thereof, all telling the story of the energy of young talent struggling for self-expression and self-worth as the country moved from colonialism, telling a story that artistic expression cannot be constrained or denied and that venues were created out of sheer will so that it cold manifest. The programme for the 1948 opening of The Little Carib Theatre is an example.
Researchers will no doubt discover and tell us more about those whose names appear in the many programmes who went on to become successful artists abroad, politicians, ambassadors and activists, teachers of the art forms and leaders. Errol was a major witness to so much of the development of the Arts in Trinidad and Tobago in the latter half of the 20th Century. He was always encouraging and supporting from his years with the Whitehall Players in the 1940’s to his work with The Theatre Workshop from the 1950’s up to today where his iconic gesture as Makak looms large as a negative photographic image on the wall of the building housing the Theatre Workshop coincidentally located on the road into Maraval where he lived most of his life.
Among his papers was found a handwritten undated document, historical notes of sort about the Immigration Department no doubt written as we prepared for Independence. Perhaps less known was that Errol was among the early group of local public servants to become Immigration Officers. I remember among them Raymond Hodge (father of author Merle Hodge) with whom he trained in Canada, and Alcalde Warner who later became a Justice of the Court of Appeal. Alcalde, Russell Celestine and Errol were known as The Three Musketeers taking the lead in changing the face of the Department.
Errol wrote as we prepared for Independence:
“with the departure of the English Immigration Officers. The Commissioner of Police became the Chief Immigration Officer and the Department placed under him. His duties however were carried out by a Senior Police Officer who became Deputy Chief Immigration Officer.”
He reflected on the department thus:-
Our country like the United States of America is a country of Immigrants, I would describe our background as a patchwork coverlet of well-known voluntary and forced migrations, of revolution fleeing French nobility, asylum seeking Venezuelan political exiles, their relatives and supporters, enslaved Africans, Chinese labourers, Portuguese shopkeepers, Syrian peddlers, Jewish exiles, Barbadian tradesmen and police men, the motley St. Lucians, Vincentians, Grenadians and Guyanese….Trinidad, while being one of the larger islands was perhaps the most underpopulated…and the gentle swell of migration to which we had become accustomed was fast changing to a tidal wave. Still we were all Colonies of Great Britain and as subjects of her King and we could not close our doors completely to the islands from which so many of our near ancestors had come so that Trinidad’s First Immigration Ordinance Ch. 20 No.2 of 1926 while it set up a bar to unrestricted entry, it was one that British subjects did not have to jump but could limbo quite easily under, and they did.
His reflections go on to show the influx of skilled and unskilled labour related to the construction of United States Bases via the Special Provisions Ordinance of 1942 and when this labour was no longer in high demand the immigration changes that were made to restrict entry except to agricultural workers and the constant juggle to control the influx via the various Ordinances. For example, he notes, Government Notice #177 “which listed 150 categories of persons who were deemed by the Governor in Council on economic grounds to be undesirable immigrants but less than two years later in March 1955, Government Notice #57 removed 56 of these categories, we were getting ready for the ill fated Federation and the “All ah we is one” period”.
Errol would in his later years would say that he often wondered about what the migrants would or could tell their children about Trinidad vis a vis the islands from which they came. One could only sense the interplay between his artistic sensibilities and his day to day job experiences. He addressed both with commitment and vigor. I can only think of my good fortune to have grown in the ambit of his life and work, to experience the power of The Arts, the creation of Caribbean sensibility and the dedication to public service; to feel his influence on my life and see it in my children going forward. He lived thirteen years shy of a century and makes a century look achievable. Thank You Uncle Errol wherever you are out there playing Siswi Bansi with Wilbert Holder; Makak with Stanley Marshall, and Derek Walcott directing; Diable Papa with Jean Sue Wing, Errol Hill directing; Charlie with Barbara Assoon and Errol John looking on! What rich memories you and all who trod the boards with you have left us. Your laughter will live on!
Marcia Riley a former Secretary General of the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO is the author of The Play’s the Thing…Errol Jones at 80 and his niece.