Timmia Hearn Feldman is not in Kansas any more. "You know how many people have said that to me?" deadpanned the new assistant artistic director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW) at an interview at a Newtown coffee shop last week. Her mother is Trinidadian, and her father Israeli, but Hearn Feldman grew up in Kansas in the Midwestern United States, spending many holidays in Trinidad in the interim. It was four days before the opening of the TTW staging of the Jamaican classic An Echo in the Bone, which Hearn Feldman came to Trinidad in May to begin directing. She first read Echo when she came to assist in directing another Jamaican play, Trevor Rhone's Smile Orange, staged at the Little Carib last year. "[Echo] was everything I had to say about my own fractured ancestry and history and where I come from. I think being mixed is one of the hardest things you can be, because you don't have anything that you can be. You can't be black, you can't be white. People often make assumptions about me because of the colour of my skin which are not true. I grew up hearing my mom's mom's mom's stories, which are the stories of slavery. So that is very much a part of how I identify. "When I read Echo, which does a beautiful job of explaining and exploring the slave narrative from a black perspective, a white perspective and a mixed perspective, I thought this is everything I want to say."
Hearn Feldman is petit, and very light skinned, with a cascade of loose chestnut curls that cascade down the left side of her face, Mick Hucknall-style circa 1987. She twirled the curls abstractedly as she fielded phone calls during the interview, pacing as she talked about drummers with one caller.
Drums play an intrinsic part in Echo, which is set in a country wake in Jamaica in 1937. A villager is dead and his community gathers to remember him; the exercise becomes one of ancestral memory, and scenes flash to slave ships, plantations, and the maroon bush. Hearn Feldman has changed the setting to Trinidad, hoping to remind the population that, yes, there was slavery here, and all its consequences. In a rehearsal at the Central Bank Auditorium that night, actor Michael Cherrie shifted from the character of Stone, a black villager, to the character of a white ship's bosun taking enslaved Africans out for airing on a slaver's deck, while other villagers become the Africans bound in a line behind him. Hearn Feldman is a good director, said Winston Duke, who plays Sonson, the dead villager's son. "She works very hands-on with her actors, and goes for very honest and deeply felt work, which is something that gives the audience great shows," Duke said. (See sidebar.) Echo is "a difficult play-for audiences as well," said TTW artistic director Albert Laveau. Laveau has engaged Hearn Feldman to be his apprentice with an eye to her succession as artistic director of the venerable TTW. "I know that my clock is winding down and it would be remiss of me to not put succession in place," said Laveau, who is 77 this year and has led the workshop for decades. "I think she will be a great asset to the theatre movement in Trinidad," he said at the Echo rehearsal that night. "She's keen to displace me. I'm looking forward to it," he said with a smile. He's especially glad she's teaching in the TTW's School for the Arts, which continues with an acting class for teens tomorrow at its Jerningham Street, Belmont, headquarters. "Training is vital for the arts, the bedrock on which the damn thing thrives," Laveau said.
Hearn Feldman refused to give her age, but her chubby cheeks and enthusiasm speak of youth. She has an impressive resume, however; she has played Juliet and Peter Pan, and has directed four plays on her own and assisted in directing four others; she's also taught drama at US high schools and in Nepal. In 2006 she won a gold medal for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I at Lawrence High School, Kansas, and was awarded a number of fellowships and grants while at Yale. Given this background, why Trinidad? "I asked myself that question a lot for the first two weeks that I was here," she said. "I have three places that I call home: Trinidad, Israel and the United States. I don't feel I need to find a fourth because it would take me decades to be able to call that place home." She's bitter about the New York theatre scene, describing it as "a very critical, judgmental arts scene that is very bourgeois and very educated". Plus, she felt, "Nobody's going to hire [me] in New York to do anything particularly interesting." She wasn't yet ready to go to Israel, and she had the TTW project in hand-sort of. Though last year she was asked to come to work on the production, funding fell through, and if she were to come she knew she would have had to start again from scratch. Conferring with a dean at Yale, he asked her, "You have a production company down there that has a mission you like, a repertoire that you love and a history with a name. Can you manage it?"
The answer seemed to be yes.
TTW's production of An Echo in the Bone by Dennis Scott continues tonight and August 9-12 at the Central Bank Auditorium, Port-of-Spain. Showtime is 6 pm on Sundays, and 8 pm on other nights. For ticket information, call the TTW at 624-8502.
New kid on the block
Though he was born here, Winston Duke is a new face to Trinidad theatre. The 25-year-old emigrated from Tobago to the US with his family when he was ten. Armed with a bachelor's in theatre from the University of Buffalo, New York, he entered the Yale School of Drama two years ago to do a master's in acting. There he met fellow ex-pat actor Paul Pryce, and through Pryce, Timmia Hearn Feldman, who invited him to come home to play Sonson, a major role in An Echo in the Bone. He's very tall, well over six feet, and has the presence of a leading man on stage even surrounded by such critically acclaimed actors as Michael Cherrie, Glenn Davis, Evelyn Caesar Munroe and Arnold Goindhan. While he intends to return to the US to finish his degree, Duke said, "I plan on coming back home to do more work. I'm a son of the soil. I would love to help Trinidad theatre and be as much a part of it as I can."