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Exploring decolonization through the lens of performance

Exploring decolonization through the lens of performance

Honor Ford-Smith has been working at the crossroads of performance, politics and Caribbean culture for over forty years. Jamaican director, poet, and professor living in Toronto, Canada, Ford-Smith herself was formed by intersecting struggles for radical social change in Jamaica in the 1970s.  Stirred by the Bob Marley’s anti-colonial and pan-Africanist music and mentored by a generation of Caribbean anti-colonial writers like George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and Dennis Scott, she first came to voice as an actor and theatre director committed to a form of community-based collaborative theatre that combined oral testimony, social history and ritual forms in search of social justice.   

As the founding artistic director of the Sistren Theatre Collective, one of the earliest cultural-political collectives of Black women of the Americas, she collaborated with working class women to research women’s lives and histories and to create performances that critique the enduring gendered legacies of plantation inequities. Under her artistic direction, Sistren produced a repertoire of plays which toured the world, deeply influencing theatre practitioners in the Caribbean and the global south and became the subject of numerous scholarly studies. On moving to Canada, Ford-Smith continued her work on performance as a site of knowledge production, researching performance as a site of anti-imperial nationalism in postcolonial Jamaica, anthologizing plays of the 1970s and 80s, writing on the pedagogy and politics of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, the body performance and decolonization, the Jamaican poet Mikey Smith, and the plays of Dennis Scott. 

Ford-Smith’s research on memory and violence in Jamaica 2007-2017 culminated in a cycle of performances entitled Letters from the Dead.  The final iteration of this project was the installation Song for the Beloved which according to poet Christian Campbell “emerges out of her history of unapologetic art engagé as well as a broader constellation of civic interventions for peace in Jamaica. This performance installation creates a space to re-member all those who have died as a result of layered state-sanctioned violence in Jamaica and the Caribbean diaspora. It is driven by an ethical imperative to challenge normalized modes of exclusion and brutality and to take account of the ethical connections between the living and the dead.” 

Song for the Beloved, continues Ford-Smith’s insistence on an ethics of collaboration, which is admittedly difficult given that power dynamics constantly need to be negotiated. She collaborates with a range of people, particularly the community of Hannah Town, a vibrant working class community in West Kingston. She also collaborates with artists of the diaspora such as Anique Jordan, Camille Turner, Danielle Smith and Kara Springer who have all contributed to the installation. 

Her latest project on Decolonization, Social Movements and Performance in the Caribbean and Canada explored decolonization between 1968-88 in the Caribbean and Canada through the lens of performance and asked what this period’s repertoire of knowledge had to offer decolonial visions and struggles in the present. What might reading this particular decolonial moment through the lens of performance and from the present moment reveal about the gaps and silences in existing accounts and how might we use what we find in the present? How might such an exploration from the perspective of the present alter how we recuperate and enact decolonization in the present across time and space? 

With these questions in mind, Honor, in collaboration with Anthony Bogues from the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, USA, Ronald Cummings from Brock University, and York colleagues from the Centre for Latin America and Caribbean, Centre for Feminist Research, Faculties of Education and Environmental Studies, VP Office for Research and Innovation, and UofT’s Women and Gender Studies, held an international workshop from October 24-26, 2019 in Toronto, attended by scholars, artists, performers and graduate students from the US, Canada and the Caribbean.

Ford-Smith’s work models the kind of engaged interdisciplinarity that our contemporary survival demands, crossing boundaries not only as a diasporic practice of politicized art-making and scholarship but also of living.