Rhoma Spencer To Debut Musical Play On Calypso Rose in Canada

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By Essiba Small

 It is a musical that has been put off too long, for one reason or the other.   But on June 17, veteran theatre practitioner Rhoma Spencer will finally get to show what she’s been working on since 2019—the workshop production Queen of the Road: The Calypso Rose Musical.

The event, presented by the Queer and Trans Research Lab at the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto, in Partnership with Tobago Performing Arts Company and the Canadian Caribbean Arts Network, is scheduled for the Hart House Theatre, Hart House Circle, Toronto.
 “This musical was to happen in 1996, the year after I did Bassman – The Mighty Shadow Musical in Tobago and Trinidad,” Spencer told the Express’s Kitcharee magazine.

 “At that time, it was to be called ‘Fire Fire’; it never happened.”
 “The inspiration to finally get on to writing it came when (Rose) won The Victoire de la Musiq Award (French Grammy) in 2017, and what seems like a revival of Calypso Rose and her music in the past ten years. I was in awe that at her age, she was literally living out of her suitcase touring the world singing calypso.”

 Rose, the workshop production, focuses on the Tobago singer’s struggle to carve a calypso niche for herself in a patriarchal environment and how, through her tenacity, she overcomes it all, Spencer said.
 “It also wants to bring to the fore her activism towards gender equality in her music.
 “What struck me most about my interviews with her is how much she wanted to return power to our women, because she was tired of Sparrow’s treatment of women in his songs.”

 Spencer was in a quandary.

How was she going to access Canadian public funds to tell the story of a non-Canadian? And what would be the Canadian content of the production? Until she could answer those questions, Spencer was forced to shelve the production, even with hours of interview research with the calypso queen in hand.  “I needed funding to start the writing process. I had already self-funded my way over to New York to sit with (Rose) for two days.”

When the University of Toronto, Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies put out a call for its Queer and Trans Research Lab Artist in Residence for its 2022-23 semester, Spencer knew that she had to apply.

 “An ‘Aha’ moment came over me. My residency will be to create the Calypso Rose Musical, after all, Rose came out (a metaphor used to describe LGBTQIA+ people’s self-disclosure of their sexual orientation, romantic orientation or gender identity) at the age of 72, and as a queer artist myself, this project will more than qualify.”

As soon as Spencer applied for the residency, the Canadian content that she was looking for, emerged. The album which earned Rose the French Grammy, was actually produced in Toronto, and some of the back-up vocalists on the album are also Canadian.

Spencer also enlisted the assistance of Michelle Walker, one of her Trini-Canadian colleagues, to play Rose’s adopted mother, and for the role of Rose, she chose the 2018 NWAC Calypso Queen, Stacey Sobers-Abraham.

“The moment I embarked on writing the musical play, I hand-picked Stacey, not even knowing if she had any ounce of acting ability,” Spencer said.
 “I cast her because I simply found that she looked like Rose. Only to find out when I approached her that she is called Young Rose at home by some members of the public. What a coincidence.”
Sobers-Abraham believes that her voice and demeanour on stage give off that “young Rose vibe”.
 “And now too that I sport low or no hair.”

Calypso Queen and first time actor

Admitting that she admires Rose and often activates her persona during her own performance, Sobers-Abraham said she is excited to play the octogenarian.
 “I was honoured that (Spencer) thought of me, not just to play the part of Her Majesty Calypso Rose, but moreso by the fact that she considered me enough to bring her work to life, even though I had no real prior experience as an actor.  “I believe that opportunities such as these are not just coincidences. So, I immediately seized it.”
Spencer was prepared to work overtime to make Sobers an actor, but said Sobers was an ambitious and committed artist who paid an acting coach to get the necessary lessons.

In November of 2022, Sobers-Abraham signed up and attended an acting workshop that was being offered by Tafar Chai Lewis, who is an actress, writer, producer and acting coach.
“It was just one session, a really good one. The session offered building your voice technique and self-awareness—which were helpful in bringing me up to speed—stage presence, and actor intentions.”

Sobers-Abraham also credited her husband and manager Gervon for his additional acting lessons.
“He is a Cacique award winner (2000) and a thespian in his own right, and he has been helpful as well.” Spencer said, “By the time she read the role I was blown over and breathed a sigh of relief. It was a gamble I took that paid off.”

Calypso Rose is aware of Spencer’s musical play on her, but unfortunately would not be present at the production.
“She is very elated by it all. I read her some scenes in the earlier drafts of the script and she laughed so much,” Spencer said.

Sobers-Abraham, who left the country on Monday for Canada, said she is looking forward to seeing the play come together.

“The singing, the research, the theatrical work and the workshop-ping. The magic of meeting and gelling with the cast on stage, music, costumes, and of course Canada, and the international exposure.
“The performance is on the 17th so there is a lot of work ahead, in person and on the ground. I want to thank Rhoma Spencer and the University of Toronto for this opportunity and all other contributors to the success of this wonderful project.”

Spencer was grateful for the vision of Elvis Radgman and members of the Tobago Performing Arts Company for their collaboration on the play. ” They were able to see, not only the immediate Calypso Rose Musical project, but the bigger picture of this collaboration for the company internationally. It will be remiss of me not to also extend my gratitude to the Tobago House of Assembly for their sponsorship of the four artists travelling to Canada to be a part of this historic occasion.”

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