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Dr. Joanne Kilgour-Dowdy Storytelling with a conscience

Published: 
Monday, August 8, 2011
Author Dr Joanne Kilgour Dowdy Photo: Andre Alexander

 Dr. Joanne Kilgour-Dowdy is one of our most prolific writers, with a bibliography that’s several pages long. Her publications span the topics of education, dance, drama, feminism, and culture. The Julliard alum is also still heavily involved in dance, theatre and film, and the video and theatre productions she has written, produced or directed are dedicated to the upliftment of women and their communities, particularly women of colour in the racially charged North American environment. At the moment, she’s Professor of Adolescent/Adult Literacy at Kent State University. She’s in Trinidad to promote her latest book, Artful Stories: The Teacher, the Student, and the Muse. The book is about four male Trinidadian performers: a dancer, a dramatist, a musician and a lighting designer. It’s the third of her books to be published by Peter Lang, something she considers quite an honour, considering the calibre of writers belonging to that publishing house. Three of these men were acquaintances as far back as her Holy Name days. The fourth she met about 8 years ago. “Actually, he was the person who inspired me to write the book, because I realised there were so many male performers who we know nothing about. We might hear their names if we’re in the dance or drama circle, but if you’re outside the circle; you have little documentation in Trinidad about the legacy of performing artists. Dr. Derek Walcott is written about because he’s a Nobel Laureate. Beryl McBurnie is written about in someone’s Master’s thesis, but if you go to the library and say you’re looking for information on performing artists in Trinidad, you will be a long time digging.”

The book has been several years in the making; she began working on it in 2004, when she came back to Trinidad to bury her father, former bronze-medal-winning Olympic weightlifter, Lennox Kilgour.  “I met one of the artists, who was a founder of the folk discipline in Trinidad. Talking with him, I realised I didn’t know the history of dance in Trinidad. I knew a piece of the history of dance.” A dancer herself, she was appalled by the gaps in our own written history of the arts, and resolved to do something about it. “The men have joined higher education as educators,” she adds. “They have between them 100 years of experience, starting from when they began performing in Trinidad to where they are now in the US and Canada.” The men offer a range of experiences, coming from different economic backgrounds and having taken different paths in their performing lives. For their privacy, and that of the colleagues and friends they suggested she contact, Dr. Kilgour-Dowdy elected to use pseudonyms. Since the men all teach outside of Trinidad, she anticipates some backlash from those who think these men are giving away their knowledge to foreign audiences. Her rebuttal is simple: “Why has Trinidad allowed the “oil” to run in a direction that is not of advantage to us? "Why is Joanne Kilgour outside writing about Trinidadians? That began in slavery; we can’t undo that in a minute.” The former member of the Banyan Television workshop and student of the Caribbean School of Dancing was first introduced to local audiences through the popular Twelve and Under talent programme. Thirty years on, programmes in which she has featured are still running on local TV. “I still get people calling me up and saying, ‘I saw you on TV last night!’”

Those with long memories might recall a brief anti-cancer TV spot in which she which attempted to teach women how to conduct a breast self-exam…by baring her breasts and demonstrating. The outrage was swift and brutal, but she’s thankful she had the courage to do it. “I’ve lost several friends to cancer, and I feel that was a way I honoured their memory, and the struggle some are still facing with cancer.” She regrets that she wasn’t able to achieve the level of awareness she hoped. “Nobody remembers what I taught about examining the breast, but everybody remembers I was seen without my top on television. I should have helped save a lot of lives in Trinidad, and I don’t think that happened. And for that, I will always beg God’s forgiveness.” Still, though, she’s philosophical about the experience. “The outcry was part of my growth curve. You have to have a firm belief in what you choose to do. Nobody can point at me and say ‘You say one thing and do another’. If it’s important, you put yourself on the line.” Artful Stories was launched in Trinidad last Friday.  It’s available in local bookstores as well as several online retailers.