Veteran Broadcaster and Media Trainer Alma Mock Yen speaks at UTech, Ja Centre for the Arts Festival of the Arts

Veteran media and communications trainer Alma Mock Yen delivers her presentation on “From Wave to Reel: The Evolution of Radio Drama to Film” at the University’s annual Festival of the Arts, hosted by the Centre for the Arts at the Shared Facilities Building, Papine Campus on Thursday, November 14, 2019.

Mock Yen charts the evolution of Jamaican Sound and Visual Drama

Jamaican journalism and communications doyenne Alma Mock Yen donned the hat of cultural historian to deliver a riveting presentation on the evolution of Jamaican “sound drama into visual drama” at the University of Technology, Jamaica’s annual Festival of the Arts, hosted by the Centre for the Arts at the Shared Facilities Building, Papine Campus on Thursday, November 14, 2019.

An Adjunct Lecturer and former University of the West Indies Radio Tutor at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC), Mrs. Mock Yen has trained a significant number of Jamaica’s broadcast journalists, and has a long history as an actress, radio personality and expert on radio, dance and theatre drama.

Speaking on the theme “From Wave to Reel: The Evolution of Radio Drama to Film”, during her presentation Mrs. Mock Yen charted the course of Jamaican entertainment; from its fledging beginnings in mockery of the plantocracy during slavery, to the robust, uniquely Jamaican productions now extant. She explained that Jamaican drama began on the plantation, where slaves copied the plantation owners’ European forms of theatre and entertainment, outlining that “slaves created their own brand of theatre in song and dance. Much of the indigenous African use of body language and musical structures were maintained through celebrations conducted in the dead of night, ” she pointed out.

The sharp-witted Mock Yen’s recollection of the “many textured journey” of Jamaican theatre began in 1933, where she recounted watching her first performance as a child, and being deeply affected by a production of the Salvation Army at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. From this first brush with theatre, Mrs. Mock Yen would eventually find herself at the forefront of performers in the late 1930s who orchestrated the emergence of drama that began to establish its Jamaican identity. Still mired in mimicry, Jamaican drama mirrored American minstrelsy, with black face being used by such performers as E M Cupidon and Ed “Bim” Lewis and Aston “Bam” Wynter as an early form of standup comedy.  

The 1930s, Mrs. Mock Yen explained, was the era of Jamaica’s first generation of theatre writers, where actors and producers such as feminist, activist and writer Una Marson, novelists and poet Roger Mais and playwrights Frank Hill and W G Ogilvie were beginning to position themselves for the national spotlight. Support for this nationalist thrust into theatre came from an unlikely source; world-recognized philosopher, champion of people of colour and national hero, Marcus Garvey, who had as his political agenda the establishment of an opera house and a full scale orchestra, which he saw as an “engine of discipline and a tool his country could use on its uphill climb to sophistication.”

Another era of expansion came with Radio Jamaica Limited’s introduction of rediffusion technology (the communication of local and foreign station programmes to subscribers through the use of wires) in the 1940s, which led to a drastic increase in listenership across the island, and consequently, a greater cross section of Jamaicans tuned into the ground-breaking radio serial Life of the Morgan Henrys, with Mrs. Mock Yen’s ‘Putus’ playing across from veteran Jamaican actor Ranny Williams’ ‘Morgie’. “That in my view was the start of local radio drama because Life with the Morgan Henrys ran for four years, unbroken, and it departed from the British-broadcast BBC originated classical English plays that were previously offered on radio.” Mrs. Mock Yen explained. One of the first radio serials to be broadcast in Jamaican dialect, it paved the way for productions by Jamaican producer Neil Gibson, many of which featured folklorist, writer and cultural icon Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately Ms. Lou.

The veteran broadcaster noted that the norm at this time was for drama, radio or theatre to be produced by foreigners, including directors Bill Fifield and Doris Hastings, with local talent in the cast. The establishment of the Department of Extramural Studies at the then University College of the West Indies by Sir Philip Sherlock gave rise to formal training for local actors, which was beneficial to the stage, but also to radio actors as well. Through this avenue, Hastings, Fifield and internationally acclaimed director Nugent Monck offered drama courses and staged plays in Jamaica, including William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice at the Ward Theatre and Our Town at the Garrison Theatre, which stood at the location that is now the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts.

In ensuing years, Trinidadian playwright and theatre historian Errol Hill and Jamaican theatre pioneer Noel Vaz offered courses at the UCWI’s Extramural Studies Department as tutors, and staged plays with a distinctly Caribbean and Jamaican flavor, in which she would act. This was also a period during which plays were produced by English aristocrat, actor, director and producer Orford St John, who experimented with form and narrative by casting local actors and comedians in noted Shakespearean roles, including Ms. Lou in the Merry Wives of Windsor and Ranny Williams in Twelfth Night.

In 1951, however, this tide turned with the staging of A Play for Easter at the Ward Theatre, produced by “a well-known local impresario, actor and benefactor of the arts” Vere Johns. Mrs. Mock Yen explained “this is a significant shift: A Jamaican is now producing Jamaican talent for the Jamaican public. Regrettably the Jamaican public did not patronize local plays because wages in the country were low, leaving little to spend on entertainment. But, what they did support was the movies, because it was cheap and we had a lot of movie theaters.”  The enterprising Johns, who Mrs. Mock Yen laments has not been duly recognized for his significant contributions to Jamaican theatre and music, introduced the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and Opportunity Knocks talent shows, to take full advantage of the crowded cinemas of the Majestic, Ward and Ambassador Theatres. Many Jamaican musicians and actors had their first big break in these shows, including Alton Ellis, John Holt, Jimmy Cliff, Lloyd Chambers, Jimmy Tucker, Derrick Morgan, The Wailers and others, who would go on to have long and fruitful careers.

With the establishment of the National Dance Theatre Company and Mrs. Mock Yen’s own Ivy Baxter Dance Group (IBDG), drama expanded and shifted its cope, moving from speech to include movement. Proving to be as exciting as the radio version, dance drama contributed segments to the newly established television station. With the emergence of new technology, came new stars, including the Reckord brothers: Lloyd and Barry, Lois Kelly-Miller, formerly Barrow, Muniar Zacca, and Charlie Hibbert, Winston Bell, Trevor Rhone, among others. Though the first taste of television drama came in the form of short advertisements, the Jamaica Broadcasting Company (JBC) soon produced Tea Meeting, with actress Leonie Forbes in the lead role, Oliver at Large starring Oliver Samuels and a local soap opera Royal Palm Estate.  

Mrs. Mock Yen ended her presentation by lauding the contributions of present stage and television actors Shakina Deer, Glen ‘Titus’ Campbell, Paul Campbell, Keith “Shebada” Ramsay and others, and hoped that the Jamaican government would play an active role in fostering training in drama and assisting in the further development of theatre and television in Jamaica.

Mrs. Mock Yen received a standing ovation from the audience following her presentation.

The Business of Film

Mr. Kevin Jackson (left), president of the Jamaica Animation Nation Network makes a point while Ms. Analisa Chapman, president of Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) looks on. Both were panelists at the Festival of the Arts Panel Discussion held on Thursday, November 14, 2019 at the Shared Facilities Building, Papine Campus.

The Festival of the Arts presentation also included  an interactive session with Ms. Analisa Chapman, President of the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) and Mr. Kevin Jackson, writer, animator and president of Jamaica Animation Nation Network (JANN), who gave students valuable advice on how to break into the film industry in Jamaica.  They advised that this includes fostering the right business partnerships through association with film groups and volunteering for positions on commercials and in films.

In Appreciation

Mr. Hector Wheeler (left), Associate Vice President, Advancement presents appreciation gifts to Mrs. Alma Mock Yen, Ms. Analisa Chapman and Mr. Kevin Jackson. Mr. Philip Clarke (background), Director, Centre for the Arts and Master of Ceremonies looks on.


Michelle Beckford (Mrs.)
Corporate Communications Manager
University of Technology, Jamaica
Telephone: 970-5299