Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Smile Orange: Melba Liston in Jamaica

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Smile Orange: Melba Liston in Jamaica

Article excerpt

A switchboard operator answers calls while applying eye shadow. Two waiters exchange stories in the kitchen backroom. The new busboy learns to use deodorant while proudly wearing a bright orange vest. An assistant manager telephones home to speak to his wife who casually converses while lying in bed stroking the family gardener.

Welcome to the Mocho Beach Hotel that serves as the setting for Smile Orange (1971), Trevor D. Rhone's (1940-2009) comedy stage play about Jamaican tourism. The fictional third-rate hotel is located on the north coast of Jamaica where, as a New York Times reviewer put it, the "tourists are funny and crass and the natives who serve and exploit them are crass and funny" (Eder 1976). However, Jamaican author Rhone wrote Smile Orange in an auspicious moment that was not at all "crass" or "funny" in the minds of most Jamaicans. Signs were already abundant that political tides would turn in the next national election, when People's National Party candidate Michael Manley would become the next Prime Minister. Indeed, the plot of Smile Orange reflects the urgency of one priority of Manley's platform: the need for Jamaica to resist economic domination of western superpowers. Interactions between workers and tourists in Smile Orange expose the plight of black Jamaicans seeking economic advancement in spite of the imbalance of power emblematic of the tourist economy of a formerly colonized nation.

In 1976, the same year Manley was elected to a second term, Smile Orange was adapted as a film, Smile Orange: The Jamaican Experience. Shot in the style of a U.S. blaxploitation film, Smile Orange was, nevertheless, distinctly Jamaican, with some aspects reflecting the flowering of Jamaican culture that accompanied Manley's broader social and economic programs for national autonomy. Not only was it filmed entirely in Jamaica, but its score veered from those of other films in the genre by featuring Jamaican folk music forms and newer Jamaican popular music styles, including reggae and ska. The composer, however, was not Jamaican, but an African-American woman with a very different relationship to Jamaican culture than to the tourists represented in the film, whose asymmetrical power relations mirrored those of the respective nations.

Melba Liston had moved from Los Angeles to Kingston in 1973, the year after Manley's ascendance to Prime Minister, to accept a position as director of a contemporary performing arts program. She was soon busy contributing to the national celebration of Jamaican culture of the 1970s in a number of roles. Three years after composing the musical score for Smile Orange: The Jamaican Experience (1976), she served as composer/arranger and musical director for The Dread Mikado (1979), a historically significant theater production that would be celebrated as emblematic of the Jamaican cultural revolution, though it ran during a less optimistic moment in the Manley government. With the economy crumbling around him, Manley accepted assistance from the IMF in 1978--a fundamental contradiction to his ideals for an independent Jamaica. He negotiated with the IMF for conditions that would protect Jamaican autonomy, yet was forced out of office in 1979, a year earlier than the scheduled elections, in a moment of violence and disillusionment that many attribute to CIA interference (Marable 1993,4). In the same year, Liston returned to the U.S., ending her Jamaican period.

There is much scholarship on Jamaican and U.S. economic and political relations during the turbulent decade of 1970-80. This paper will not revisit that ground, though it is important to have a sense of the context of the Manley years, the dramatic shifts since the triumphant first election, the relationship between economic independence and the cultural revolution, and the role of the U.S. in exerting economic and political pressures that brought Manley's second term to a grinding halt just in time for the Reagan years. …

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