Avia Collinder, Outlook Writer
Leonie Forbes, flitting from spot to spot as swiftly as a hummingbird, in her bougainvillaea-covered cottage in Kingston, during this March interview, is the elegant epitome of herself. Later, you will understand more of what we mean.
Forbes, who was, on November 20, 2007, recognised by the United States Congress and the Jamaican community in New York for her five decades of professional excellence in broadcasting, theatre and film, is today a petite, energetic woman, eyes glinting above smiling, bow lips.
The silvery strands of her close-cropped hair each testify to the decades of experience garnered in becoming Jamaica’s first lady of film and theatre.
In December, Forbes attended the premiere of her 20th film, A Winter Tale, a Leda Serene production shot in Toronto, and which also opened the 15th Annual African Diaspora Film Festival in New York.
The film is the emotional story of a black men’s support group, which is formed in a Caribbean takeout restaurant in Toronto, Canada, after a young boy is killed by a stray bullet. It will be launched in Kingston on Thursday, April 3.
In prior productions, Leonie appeared in Glory to Gloriana (2006), Lord Have Mercy! (2003), Tangled Web (2003), Guttaperc (1998), Shattered Image (1998) and Mother (1998).
Her major films – prior to A Winter Tale – were Shattered Image (1998), Soul Survivor (1995), What My Mother Told Me (1994), Milk and Honey (1989) and Children of Babylon (1980).
She has also filled leading roles in 12 national pantomimes and numerous plays.
In acknowledging her outstanding body of work, Acting Consul General Lincoln Downer presented Forbes with her certificate of merit from the consulate general of Jamaica in New York, and a citation from Congressman Ed Towns (Brooklyn), stating that Forbes had blazed a trail of excellence and has also paved the way for aspiring Jamaicans and Caribbean actors and actresses.
Leonie Evadne Forbes was born on June 14 at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, daughter of Roderick Wedderburn and G. Forbes-Wedderburn. She was educated at St George’s Girls’ School, Kingston Senior School and Excelsior High School.
“I was adopted by an aunt and raised by herself and her husband. It was all I knew.
“You can’t miss what you don’t know,” she says bracingly about her parenthood, stating that her biological mother lives in New York and they share a good relationship.
“I never felt left out. I was always in the top five at school. The teachers at the time were extremely encouraging of my little writings and poems. I loved Miss Lou, but I never wanted to be anyone but myself.”
Forbes states that she always knew that she liked to make people laugh. She even got caught by the pastor at church mimicking him.
But, for her, it never was a thing about ‘I am going to be an actress’. “Things happened,” she says in her usual cryptic manner.
Leonie’s first exposure to broadcasting came through Sir Philip Sherlock of the University College of the West Indies (UWI), whom she describes as a “humble, wonderful man who shared”.
She worked as a typist for him and then went to work with Barry Reckord, a playwright for whom she would type plays and at times accompany him to the studios of the Government Information Service (now Jamaica Information Service) to watch the recording sessions.
Leonie would do parts in the programmes produced for Government broadcast and in 1955 began work as an announcer at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC).
The late Rita Coore, Leonie reflects, was the first one to say to her, “You have a very nice voice, but you can’t talk. Come and see me.” Coore was one of several individuals who assisted her in developing her voice and craft.
She also credits Alma Mock Yen, formerly of the UWI’s Radio Education Unit, with improving her skills. “She would see my little scribbles and say, come, pointing out little ways to do things.” Whatever strides she made in voice and speech in the early years, she says, “that was Alma”.
Unusual skills in voice
Meanwhile, Forbes also connected with the Pantomime of Maas Ran (comedian, the late Ranny Williams) and Miss Lou (Louise Bennett-Coverley). Maas Ran, she remembers, “was a great gentleman who looked out for us. We used to have fun provoking him, but it never disturbed him.”
Her unusual skills in voice came to the attention of Robin Michelin (who came to Jamaica to help set up the JBC) and he assisted her in securing a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in England.
Excited and willing to give the theatre everything she had, Leonie left for London, spending six years of study and practice at the RADA, where she pursued a diploma course in Radio Television and Stage. Leonie also worked on scripts for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Caribbean Service.
Leonie appeared in several RADA productions, including the pantomime Cinderella. She also played in Unknown Woman of Arras, Days of the Lion, and Antony and Cleopatra in which she was the lead female actor. She has also featured in television drama series on the BBC and Independent Television networks such as Z Cars, Odd Man, Public Eye, Hugh and I, Desperate People and Harper’s West.
London critic, Kenneth Tynan, reviewed her first appearance in professional theatre, Busha Blue Beard, a Lloyd Reckord production, in April 1962, that Leonie put on “a bewitchingly ingenious performance”.
Forbes declares, “My confidence in acting grew as I saw the response of people who I respected.”
Making her characters real
But, she notes, that she never uses the word ‘act’ in reference to what she does. “I try not to act. Try to become the character. Acting is for comedy, but for drama, you become. I use my experiences in life and observe people. No matter what happens, no matter how painful, how extremely joyful, you observe, look and listen to find things which will make your character real to whoever is going to watch.”
This is the reason why, she says, she has little if any regret in relation to any experience in life, as they all contributed to who she could become onstage.
In Old Story Time in which she later played with Charles Hyatt, by the time the rest of the cast came in they knew enough to greet them by saying, “Evening Miss Aggie, evening Pa Ben,” because they were already in character.
Leonie remembers, “By 4:30 in the afternoon, I am no good to anybody. I am becoming.”
Drama, she says, does not involve running away from reality. “The more you live, the more you experience and the more you have to draw on.”
Leonie returned to Jamaica in 1966 after she completed training with RADA, but left again for Australia in 1968 with her husband, Dr Keith Amiel, who at the time was doing research in veterinary science at Queensland University.
In Australia, she appeared in the production of the Shakespearean play Merchant of Venice. She also took part in ABC radio plays, taught drama at three Brisbane schools and worked as a librarian too.
On her return to Jamaica in 1970, she went back to JBC where she worked as a prod
ucer/presenter for television. In 1972 came Radio Two JBC FM Stereo Service and the JBC TV Drama Workshop.
Out of the Drama Workshop came A Scent of Jasmine, and Let’s Say Grace – a screenplay which she wrote and produced herself. In May 1976, Leonie was appointed to the post of director of radio broadcasting for the JBC.
Participating in numerous plays and several films, Forbes also authored a book called The Re-Entry Into Sound, along with Alma Mock Yen – a text used to train broadcasters all over the Caribbean. She also wrote and directed What’s Food For The Goose; Let’s Say Grace for TV and Radio.
Every role presents its challenges, the actress now says, but the one which was truly terrifying was Night, Mother – a play about a mother losing her child to suicide – which was done with Makeda Solomon.
“I still don’t understand why I did it.”
At around the same time, a friend of hers had lost her daughter in similar circumstances. “I thought the play would help, but my nerves stayed taut until the final curtain in February 2007.”
A few months later, her son, Moyo, went to bed one night and did not awake, just days before his first wedding anniversary. Forbes believes that her experience in Night Mother assisted her tremendously in coping with his death.
Leonie, who married three times, is mother of four, and says she has a friendship with her surviving children, which she treasures.
About her marriages she notes, “I don’t know that I had a single great love. It is perhaps sad, but none of my marriages lasted. But, I have fabulous memories. I believe in living and let live.”
Her youngest daughter, Dianne, works with Air Jamaica, while her older, Keren, is an account executive in advertising. Her surviving son, Robert, lives in North Carolina. Leonie has three grandchildren.
In the threatre, she declares, she has also mothered many, as sharing is a critical part of the experience.
For a lifetime of dedication to her craft, Leonie Forbes was awarded the My Life in the Theatre medal by the Mexican Theatre Centre, for outstanding theatre personalities of Latin America and the Caribbean (2001); the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) Government of Jamaica (1980), a Silver Musgrave Medal, a Centenary Medal, a Bronze Musgrave Medal (1973) and many more.
She also won seven Actor Boy awards (six best actress and one best supporting) and several gold medals for craft.
An adjudicator at the Festival Commission since 1973, Leonie loves the resurgence of interest in local theatre, although she says she would love to see “more of the world” on the Jamaican stage. There are also many emerging Caribbean writers who Jamaicans would certainly enjoy seeing, were their work to be produced locally.
A winter tale
She is never afraid of change and, in A Winter Tale, she was to experience this and embrace it. Forbes notes that preparation started long before the shooting.
“There were workshops and retreats for over two years.”
The cast members were integrally involved in development of the characters and were able to become very familiar with community in the depressed area in which the movie was eventually made.
A Winter Tale was shot on a shoestring budget, but many members of the West Indian community helped in any way they could to see it happen – something she would like to see embraced in the staging of Jamaican productions.
Completed in early 2007, A Winter Tale premiered at the Reel World Toronto Film Festival, opening the festival and garnering an award for excellence.
Today, Forbes shows little sign of slowing down. She says “I believe in doing everything in moderation.”
The 71-year-old woman admits that she still smokes and is a diabetic. But, it is a situation where she has the condition, it does not have her, she declares. Occasionally, she indulges in ice cream, and still loves ginger bear, bulla and potato pudding.
“I love Jamaican things,” she notes. Leonie Forbes enjoys crocheting, collecting art, attending productions of the Carifolk Singers and the University Singers, and doing readings at church.
Every day delivers its own pleasures. An avid gardener, Leonie adores the morning sound of birds who swarm her bougainvillaea.
She says, “God decided that I should be born in the sun. I never wanted to live in Hollywood. I will go anywhere while working but, after, I am coming back home.”