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Exploring decolonization through the lens of performance

Exploring decolonization through the lens of performance

Honor Ford-Smith’s research focuses on performance and politics in the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora.  A Jamaican director, poet, and professor who divides her time between  Toronto, Canada and Kingston, Jamaica,  Ford-Smith began her work in the context of social and political movements in Jamaica in the 1970s.  Stirred by the anti-colonial and pan-Africanist reggae music of the time and mentored by a generation of Caribbean anti-colonial writers like George Lamming, Carroll Dawes, Kamau Brathwaite and Dennis Scott, she emerged as a performer, theatre director and scholar committed to community-based collaborative theatre that stressed oral testimony, social history, autobiography and ritual forms in search of intersecting forms of social justice.  

 As founding artistic director of the Sistren Theatre Collective, an early Black and Caribbean feminist collective of cultural producers, she collaborated with working class women to research women’s lives and histories and to generate performances that articulate the enduring gendered legacies of plantation inequities. Under her artistic direction, Sistren produced a repertoire of plays which toured the world, deeply influencing women’s activism and theatre practice in the Caribbean and elsewhere. This work has become 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 it engendered 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 collective creation, which is admittedly difficult given that power dynamics and ethical relations constantly need to be taken into account. collaborates with a range of people, including the Hannah Town Women’s Cultural Group, a group of women from 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 explores decolonization between 1968-88 in the Caribbean and Canada through the lens of performance and asks what this period’s repertoire of knowledge has 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.  A publication from this workshop is forthcoming.