Nationally acclaimed dramatic arts director, actor and promoter James Lee Wah died last weekend. The following is a reflection of his life and work, written by his friend and former colleague Godfrey J Martin.
We reflect on the journey and contributions made as we mourn the passing one of San Fernando’s pathfinders—drama director and iconic Sherpa in the theatre world James Lee Wah—who transitioned on July 4 at age 89.
Jimmy, as he was affectionately called, was a national treasure, excellent teacher and educator, visionary, innovator, inspirer of many, lover of nature, humanist and a sensitive director of drama and theatre arts. His soft-spoken manner and smile masked a steely determination and commitment to get the job done.
Many of us can share personal testimony of how Lee Wah contributed to our development and well-being, nurturing us in the world of drama and theatre arts. We stand on the shoulders of people like James Lee Wah, who laid important foundations in our country.
Lee Wah won a bursary and went to Naparima College in the period 1942-1949. He was an exceptionally bright student, twice runner-up for an island scholarship in modern studies. He taught at Naparima for a year, and in 1951, won an open scholarship to the University College of the West Indies, UCWI (as it was then called), in Mona, Jamaica.
Lee Wah’s experience in Mona in these early formative days of the UCWI brought him into contact with a cohort of other Caribbean visionaries and pioneers in liberal arts, literature, drama and theatre arts who all went on to distinguish themselves in their subsequent work. This was a period where the dreams of regional unity and a West Indian Federation were fermenting and on the agenda. His contemporaries at Mona included Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Mervyn Morris, Abdul Rahman (Slade Hopkinson), Mavis Lee Wah (nee Arscott), Ronnie Llanos, Cynthia Wilson, Carol Dawes and Rex Nettleford. Errol Hill at the time was influential as he was working as tutor and faculty member in drama with the extramural department.
The atmosphere in Mona and the liberal arts scene provided inspiration and firmed up Jimmy’s ideas on the need for benefactors and state support for nurturing and funding the arts in the community.
Lee Wah graduated with an honours degree in English (1955) and a Diploma in Education (1956). He was set to make a sterling and innovative contribution to drama and theatre arts in Trinidad and Tobago.
Lee Wah returned to his alma mater, Naparima College, and spent the rest of his teaching career there. He rose to the rank of vice-principal in 1966 and served for a period during the ’70s as acting principal.
He also used drama as an effective tool for education and learning, and I am sure the Naparima College community will tell us all of the acts of selflessness, nurturing and inspiration provided to so many cohorts of Naparima students who came under his hand. Some of these included Eddie Sookoo, Wayne Davis, Ralph Maraj, Errol Sitahal, Melville Foster, Tony Hall, Dennis “Sprangalang” Hall, David Sammy, Henry Daniel, Terrence Wendell Brathwaite, Learie Alleyne-Forte, Dennis Noel, Errol Fabien, Heathcliffe West, Kenwyn Critchlow, and the list goes on.
Local content in theatre
Many will remember the indigenised productions of several Shakespeare plays performed at the Naparima Bowl, and these plays were concurrently on the school syllabus for GCE examinations. He was using the theatre here to help with education.
Lee Wah took over the leadership of the drama guild in 1956 when its founder, Horace James, migrated to England to study drama. He held the realms till around 1975 when he left on a British Council fellowship in theatre administration at City University, London. He subsequently formed the San Fernando Theatre Workshop in 1976. Prior to this, in the mid-’60s, I believe Lee Wah had also completed a fellowship programme in drama and theatre arts at Yale University.
Lee Wah was instrumental in the formation of the Secondary Schools Drama Association in 1964. Under his leadership, the annual Secondary Schools Drama Festival competition began at the Naparima Bowl, and this opened up new opportunities for encouraging emerging talent in drama, creative writing and theatre arts.
There is no doubt that the drama festivals provided an important avenue for the staging of new local plays crafted by some of our outstanding creative writers like Ronald Amoroso, Rawle Gibbons and Zeno Obi Constance.
The late ’60s and early ’70s, with the emergence of the Black Power movement, was a period of radical thinking and discourse, questioning all the social, economic and historical fundamentals. In this space, there was a need for more local plays that spoke to our reality. Lee Wah’s response was to organise a national playwriting competition. I recalled us performing these new works in a season entitled Four New Plays.
I would suggest that the work of Errol Hill and his musical Man Better Man, among other similar works, influenced Lee Wah, who attempted wherever possible to employ the full arsenal of skills in the local plays so that dance and music were integrated in the drama productions.
Lee Wah was particularly supportive and helpful to the very young members like me and encouraged us to learn our craft by attending the creative arts summer schools at UWI in 1970/1971. It was through this medium that a few of us met Slade Hopkinson, Terry Chandler, George Williams, Ken Corsbie and others who all helped and stimulated us, which then resulted in the formation of the Performing Arts Technical Team (PATT).
Lee Wah learnt from his travels and experiences the importance of organisation and institutional building. Thus, in 1969, he was able to mobilise the other leaders in the fraternal arts and theatre groups (Torrance Mohammed, Joyce Kirton, Norbert Brown, Esmond Walters, Southern Arts Society leaders, et al) to form the San Fernando Arts Council. He was the first chairman. He also started the annual October Festival of Arts, and for many years, he edited the magazine Gayap, which highlighted and reviewed events and topical articles on the arts in San Fernando.
A perennial problem among the performing groups was the difficulty in obtaining places for rehearsals.... Lee Wah initiated the move for the setting up of a Creative Arts Centre home as a focal priority for the Arts Council, and he was well supported by Torrance and all other leaders. The centre materialised on Circular Road in San Fernando and is a testimony to the endurance, hard work and vison of all these early pioneers.
Many do not know that Lee Wah was the stage manager for the semi-finals and finals of the annual Best Village competition from its early years in 1964. Lee Wah handed over this mantle to us in the performing arts technical team in the early ’70s. In addition, he was stage manager for several Trinidad and Tobago cultural contingents going abroad, which included Expo ’67 in Montreal, Canada; Festival of Arts in Lagos, Nigeria (1977); and a trade fair in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was also an important part of the San Fernando Art Council’s contingent to Carifesta in Cuba in 1979 and Barbados in 1981.
National Drama Association
Lee Wah, along with his close friend, dance choreographer Torrance Mohammed, served for the longest period on the National Cultural Council from its inception in 1971 to 1983. During this period (1980), he became the driving force in formation of the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago while Torrance led the development of the National Dance Association. He also served for many years on the board of the Naparima Bowl.
Lee Wah should be viewed as an early pioneer in what we now call the environment movement. He led the campaign from the late ’60s against the destruction of the San Fernando Hill. This made many uncomfortable, including the then MP Errol Mahabir. It was a fight against the indiscriminate power exercised by business interests and a recognition that the rights and welfare of the community and the environment must be respected. Lee Wah sensitised me to the issue of plants and flowers. I recall his consistency in tending to the garden on the Naparima Hill when I regularly visited him during his stint as acting principal. He was never afraid to stop his car and ask a homeowner for cuttings of some particular flower, and they usually obliged. It therefore came as no surprise when he uprooted from his Bryan’s Gate, Phillipine, home to go and live in Tortuga. He saw our connection with nature as important, and clearly, he wanted space to enjoy the greenery of our natural surroundings while giving up the hustle of the town, with conspicuous consumption based on imported goods.
The idea of promoting and patronising the liberal arts, providing support activities, training facilities, nurturing and encouraging the creativity among our people in each village had been one of his consistent themes fuelled by his experiences in other lands. We can see the development of the Creative and Festival Arts Department at UWI and the Faculty of Performing Arts at UTT (University of Trinidad and Tobago) as representing significant positive milestones, particularly given the critical contributions they make. However, I think Jimmy would argue there is still much more work to be done at the local grassroots community level.
Honouring our heroes
We need to do more to educate our younger generation about the work and ideas of those who we take lineage from. This is part of our social and cultural history. It was therefore fitting and encouraging for the University of Trinidad and Tobago to have recognised Lee Wah’s lifelong work by awarding him an honorary doctorate in the performing arts in 2010. He was also recognised by the San Fernando Borough Council and several other organisations for his prolific contributions.
We are in a period of reflection, unearthing and revisiting our past history, rethinking about the current images and statues and some of our street and park names. It would be appropriate for us to consider some tangible way of honouring and remembering James Lee Wah in San Fernando. This will allow those who come after to learn about this pioneer who has made an important contribution to our nation-building.
Lee Wah married his university classmate Mavis Arscott, who shared a love for drama, literature and education. She was also an outstanding actress and educator, and she predeceased him in 2018. His first son, David, predeceased him in the early ’70s.
He leaves to mourn his children Kathleen, Sharon and Jonathan, his wider family and a community of theatre personalities and students who are all saddened by his loss.
We have been graced with an icon who devoted his life to drama, theatre arts, to teaching and community and to inspiring others. Our country has been enriched by his service and contribution. He has left an indelible mark. It has been an honour to have come under his tutelage and to consider this elder as a friend. We shared many happy memories and we mourn his passing.
—Godfrey J Martin is an actuary living in the UK and has been working in financial services for the last 32 years. Formerly a lecturer at The UWI and statistician at CSO & CMA. He was a member of the drama guild under Jimmy and served on the executive of the San Fernando Arts Council.