September 21, 2009
Trevor Rhone, a Writer of ‘The Harder They Come,’ Dies at 69
By ROB KENNER
Trevor Rhone, the award-winning Jamaican playwright, director and actor who brought his island’s culture to the world as a writer of the groundbreaking film “The Harder They Come,” died on Tuesday in Kingston, Jamaica, where he lived. He was 69.
The cause was apparently a heart attack, his wife, Camella, said.
Renowned throughout the Caribbean for plays like “Smile Orange” and “Old Story Time,” Mr. Rhone helped pioneer Jamaica’s indigenous theater, bringing pitch-perfect dialect and character studies to the local stage.
“He loved the music of our language,” said his lifelong friend, the Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes, who studied with him in England.
The Jamaican actress and broadcaster Fae Ellington, a longtime friend, said, “If he wrote five words for you, they were the best five words.”
Mr. Rhone was born in Jamaica and studied drama at Rose Bruford College in England on scholarship in the early 1960s. On his return to Jamaica he applied for a teaching position. But when he arrived at the Ministry of Education for an interview, the receptionist was surprised to see he was black.
“She freaked out and told him to go sit on a bench and wait in the corridor,” Ms. Forbes said. “He never forgot it, but he never held it against anybody. It just made him work harder that we never had to meet up on that sort of thing again — ever.”
Mr. Rhone began writing plays in the Jamaican dialect that were eventually translated into French, Spanish and Italian and added to school reading lists in the Caribbean.
Soon after his job interview went awry, he founded the Barn Theater in a converted garage donated by his friend Yvonne Jones. “It seated about 120 when it’s full,” Ms. Forbes said, “and it was usually full when Trevor’s plays were on.”
Small as it was, the Barn Theater, which closed two years ago, had a big influence on Jamaica’s culture. “It brought a slice of Jamaican life to the stage,” Ms. Ellington said. “It opened the door for non-theatergoers to come see themselves and their experiences. And the same actors who did Shakespeare and Brecht were now playing Jamaican characters.”
But it was the 1972 film “The Harder They Come” that made his name. Directed by Perry Henzell, who also had a writer’s credit, and shot in the gritty streets of Kingston, the movie starred the reggae singer Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, a boy from the country who comes to Kingston with dreams of making it big as a singer but instead becomes a notorious outlaw and dies in a hail of bullets. It became an international cult classic and introduced reggae music to the world before Bob Marley became a household name.
“Trevor’s big contribution was the film’s dramatic structure,” Mr. Henzell’s daughter Justine Henzell said.
Three decades later Mr. Rhone wrote a memoir, “Bellas Gate Boy,” for the 2002 Calabash Literary Festival, staged at the Henzell family’s hotel, Jake’s Place. It was later published as a book, and Mr. Rhone also performed it as a traveling one-man show.
Besides his wife, Mr. Rhone is survived by his brother, Neville; three children, Traci, Trevor David and Jonathan; and one grandchild.
The day before Mr. Rhone died, he drove to Bellas Gate, the rural town in the parish of St. Catherine, where he was born. He visited the graves of his mother, father and aunt, then toured a primary school that he had founded in their honor on its first day of classes. “He was very proud of that,” his wife said.