By Francis Quamina Farrier
UNITED States-based Guyanese actors Ron Bobb-Semple and Rudolph Shaw keep turning in extremely strong performances of two real-life African heroes. They play Jamaican Marcus Garvey (August 17, 1887 – June 10, 1940) and South African Steve Biko (December 18, 1946 – September 12, 1977) respectively. Both Garvey and Biko spent their lives fighting social and racial injustice; Garvey in the Americas, including a visit to British Guiana (Guyana) in October 1937. Freedom Fighter Steve Biko died of police brutality while he was detained in a cell at a police station, in apartheid South Africa.
Both Ron Bobb-Semple and Rudolph Shaw had their early groundings in theatre arts at the Theatre Guild of Guyana Playhouse in Kingston, Georgetown. Both actors have long and impressive ongoing careers in theatre, taking their craft across continents, playing two great African Civil Rights fighters. Playing real-life contemporary characters is usually somewhat challenging for actors and actresses. Members of the audience may know or know of those individuals they are playing, and so the actors and actresses have that extra pressure to deliver as credible an interpretation of the character as possible.
Ron Bobb-Semple relates how he ‘became’ the Hon. Marcus Garvey. “My journey into Garveyism began one Saturday afternoon some 40 years ago while attending a wedding ceremony at the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. There was a stained glass window close to me with an image,” he said. That image was of the Jamaican hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Having been told that he has a close resemblance to the Jamaica-born African hero, Bobb-Semple got to work researching the life of Marcus Garvey.
After he had completed a script for a one-character play, “The Spirit of Marcus Garvey”, Bobb-Semple’s journey bringing Garvey back to life on stage commenced. After many performances in various venues around the USA, the Caribbean and Africa to impressive reviews, he was awarded the UNIA Marcus Garvey Award of Jamaica.
From a very young age, Rudolph Shaw gained knowledge in Theatre Arts at the Theatre Guild in Georgetown. He was also tutored by his father who was in a Drama Group which entered the British Guiana National Drama Festivals in the early pre-independence years. That groomed Shaw to become an actor above average. Migrating to the USA and joining the United Nations (UN) in 1974, he became a member of the UN Drama Group the next year. That led him to become active in the annual UN Staff Day Talent Show.
Through a casual conversation with a visiting South African who is married to a cousin of Steve Biko, the South African freedom fighter, Shaw was introduced to the book “I Write What I Like” written by Biko. That proved to be the catalyst for the play “Steve Biko Rising” in which Rudolph Shaw played the title role in a production staged in Cape Town, South Africa.
Playing real-life characters on stage as well as in films and television puts extra pressure on actors and actresses who want to get it right. That is so especially when the character they are playing, is still alive or recently passed. In both cases, Ron Bobb-Semple and Rudolph Shaw face mountainous challenges in their roles, including the accents of the characters they play.
Ron Bobb-Semple’s play is performed at a range of venues and to a variety of audiences. As such, the actor with his wide experience knows how and when to make any necessary adjustments for the audiences, whether younger people or mature, to absorb “The Spirit of Marcus Garvey” to the fullest. The two Guyanese actors are well aware of such differences and adjust their performances as necessary. Both “The Spirit of Marcus Garvey” by Ron Bobb-Semple, and “Steve Biko Rising” by Rudolph Shaw, are likely to be staged in the years ahead.
HAPPY EMANCIPATION 2020.