Una Marson Born Too Soon

On International Women’s Day, Jamaica’s first playwright, Una Marson, was celebrated with the launch of two of her plays, Pocomania and London Calling. They had long languished in the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. The plays were finally published last year by Blouse and Skirt Books, in collaboration with the National Library. Founded by the formidable Tanya Batson Savage, this quirkily named press is a model of cultural enterprise.


The Jamaican expression ‘blouse and skirt’ signifies surprise. And, perhaps, it is a shock to even Tanya herself that her small publishing house has grown so rapidly. In 2005, she established Blue Moon Publishing, now Blue Banyan Books, which she modestly describes on her website as “a small publishing ‘hut’ located in Kingston, Jamaica”.

The hut is quite spacious. It has room for specialist audiences. Blue Banyan Books publishes fiction for children. Blouse & Skirt Books publishes poetry and prose fiction for young adults and adults. Over the last decade, Tanya has published nine books, including the award-winning All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele.


Una Marson’s extraordinary life is an inspiration for young women today. She accomplished so much in spite of the circumstances of her times.  Marson was born in rural Jamaica in 1905. This was a mere 40 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Not much had changed for poor black people by the beginning of the 20th century. Jamaica remained a fundamentally racist society, denying the black majority access to the basics for survival.

tumblr_matjv5m92T1rf692no1_400By contrast, Marson enjoyed a life of relative privilege as the daughter of a Baptist parson. She was educated at the elitist Hampton School, an institution about which she appeared to be conflicted. She was alienated from her white and brown classmates. But Marson did value the education she received at Hampton. It prepared her for the world of international politics in which she later moved with sophisticated ease.

After leaving Hampton, Marson went to Kingston. Her first job was with the Salvation Army doing social work. Then she worked with the YMCA. Soon she entered the field of journalism and in 1928, she started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which appeared monthly from 1928 to 1931 when it folded.

The name expressed the outward reach of Marson’s vision. She declared in the magazine, “This is the age of woman: What man has done, women may do.” Well, it’s not everything men have done that women should do. But you know what Marson meant. Women needed to break free from confining stereotypes.


In July 1930, Marson self-published a collection of poetry entitled Tropic Reveries; and, a year later, another, Heights and Depths. Then came the successful staging of her play At What a Price in 1932. It’s a sobering story. A young middle-class girl from the country comes to Kingston to work as a stenographer. She is seduced by her boss, a white foreigner, gets pregnant and her life mash up. She has to go back to the country in disgrace.

The exploitation of women and girls in Jamaica is an old story. Admittedly, tricking an overage woman is not at all the same as sexually abusing underage girls. But the issue of vulnerability is similar. Some women are quite naive and expect men to behave honourably when they have absolutely no intention of doing so.

that-suspicious-memeYoung girls have to be taught to be suspicious. They cannot be left on their own to learn the cold truth that what they optimistically expect is not necessarily what they will receive. They often get much more and much less than they bargained for. At What a Price was enthusiastically reviewed in the Jamaica Times: “It is to her credit and ours and may be the beginning of a Jamaican dramatic literature.” It was.


Soon after making her debut as a playwright, Una Marson left Jamaica for England. There she continued writing her “Autobiography of a Black Girl”, which she had started when she was only 25. Marson knew from quite early that her life was exceptional.

In London, she would become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In April 1935, she represented the Jamaican Women’s Social Service Club at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Her brilliant speech to the assembly championed both race and gender equality.

Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936 and became the first female writer for the radical newspaper Public Opinion. Her opinions were decidedly feminist. It is in this period that she wrote the play Pocomania about an upright, middle-class young woman who is trapped in respectability. She is almost freed by the kumina drums.

Back in London in 1938, Marson began to do scriptwriting for BBC radio. By 1941, this led to her becoming the producer of Calling the West Indies, a programme in which soldiers sent messages home. The following year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices. Writers from all over the West Indies shared their work on air. Marson had created a virtual literary community.


I keep wondering how much more Una Marson might have accomplished if she’d been born 50 years later. There would have been so many more opportunities for her as a black woman of distinction. Who knows?


Samson an di Liar Talk di Truth

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.



Yes, a Samson an di liar. No Delilah. Dis a no di Bible story. A Jamaican reality mi a chat bout. Di play weh put on a Little Little Theatre. By di way, mi see seh mi fren Michael Abrahams a wind up nuff a unu wid im column dem bout Massa God an di Bible. Some a dem Bible story no pretty fi true. Massa God a God, so im do anyting im feel like.

stdas0277Look pon all poor Job. Di man a gwaan good-good a serve God. An di devil go to God an seh, “Boss, yu done know seh di ongle reason Job a serve yu a chruu im have life easy.” An hear wa God tell di devil: “Mi a gi yu power over Job. Do anyting yu waan do to im. But no bodder kill im.” Dat sweet di devil. Im mash up Job life. Im kill off Job pikni dem, im mek people thief all a Job cow an donkey an camel. Im sheep dem burn up. An wen Job hear, all im seh, “Massa God gi an Maasa God tek weh.”

Dat bex di devil. So im go back to Massa God. An God boast off pon im: ‘See mi tell yu seh Job naa diss mi!’ An di devil seh bet anyting if im sick bad im a go cuss yu. An God seh, ‘Gwaan, but no kill im.’ An Job get one piece a leprosy! Till all im wife tell im fi dis cuss God an dead. An im neva dweet. An wen God done enjoy imself a tek bet pon Job wid di devil, im dis gi back Job more pon top a wa im did have. No sa! Mi no kyah who bex. Dat a one wicked story.


Anyhow, back to Samson an di liar. Dat a one story weh Winston ‘Bello’ Bell did start fi write. Im a one actor turn parson, so im know bout Bible story. But fi im story no wicked lakka Job. Two man a live eena one bus shed eena New Kingston. Downtown crosses gone uptown! An di man dem act out dem life inna di play.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks an Ricky Rowe tek Bello story an devel it up. Hendricks a Samson. Im get dip from England chruu dem seh im set fire pon im owna house an kill off im wife an pikni. An Ricky Rowe a di liar, Earsring. Im did love fi bet lakka Massa God an devil. But im lose. Wife an house. An chruu Massa God neva tek no bet pon im, im no get back nutten. So im deh outa road. Samson a music teacher an im a write opera bout fi im life. An Earsring a DJ. Nuff talent. So im an Samson put together an mek up song an perform fi money right deh so inna di bus shed. Di play full a joke.


Yes, a Samson an di laiya. No Delilah. Dis a no di Baibl stuori. A Jamiekan riyaliti mi a chat bout. Di plie we put aan a Little Little Theatre. Bai di wie, mi si se mi fren Michael Abrahams a wain op nof a unu wid im kolom dem bout Maasa Gad an di Baibl. Som a dem Baibl stuori no priti fi chruu. Maasa Gad a Gad, so im du enting im fiil laik.

suffering_job-705x500Luk pan aal puor Job. Di man a gwaahn gud-gud a sorv Gad. An di devl go tu Gad an se, “Baas, yu don nuo se di ongl riizn Job a sorv yu a chruu im av laif iizi.” An ier wa Gad tel di devl: “Mi a gi yu powa uova Job. Du enting yu waahn du tu im. Bot no bada kil im.” Dat swiit di devl. Im mash op Job laif. Im kil aaf Job pikni dem, im mek piipl tiif aal a Job kou an dangki an kyamel. Im shiip dem bon op. An wen Job ier, aal im se, “Maasa Gad gi an Maasa Gad tek we.”

Dat beks di devl. So im go bak tu Maasa Gad. An Gad buos aaf pan im: ‘Si mi tel yu se Job naa dis mi!’ An di devl se bet enting if im sik bad im a go kos yu. An Gad se, ‘Gwaan, bot no kil im.’ An Job get wan piis a leprosi! Til aal im waif tel im fi dis kos Gad an ded. An im neva dwiit. An wen Gad don enjai imself a tek bet pan Job wid di devl, im dis gi bak Job muor pan tap a wa im did av. Nuo sa! Mi no kya uu beks. Dat a wan wikid stuori.


Eniou, bak to Samson an di laiya. Dat a wan stuori we Winston ‘Bello’ Bell did staat fi rait. Im a wan akta ton paasn, so im nuo bout Baibl stuori. Bot fi im stuori no wikid laka Job. Tuu man a liv iina wan bos shed iina New Kingston. Dountoun kraasiz gaahn optoun! An di man dem ak out dem laif ina di plie.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks an Ricky Rowe tek Bello stuori an divel it op. Hendricks a Samson. Im get dip fram Ingglan chruu dem se im set faiya pan im uona ous an kil aaf im waif an pikni. An Ricky Rowe a di laiya, Earsring. Im did lov fi bet laka Maasa Gad an devl. Bot im luuz. Waif an ous. An chruu Maasa Gad neva tek no bet pan im, im no get bak notn. So im de outa ruod.  Samson a myuuzik tiicha an im a rait opra bout fi im laif. An Earsring a DJ. Nof talent. So im an Samson put tugeda an mek op sang an pafaam fi moni rait de so ina di bos shed. Di plie ful a juok.


Yes, it’s Samson an di liar. Not Delilah. This is not the Bible story.  It’s Jamaican reality that I’m talking about. The play that was on at the Little Little Theatre. By di way, I see that my friend Michael Abrahams has been provoking a lot of you with his columns about God and the Bible. Some of those Bible stories are quite unappealing.   God is  God, so he does as he pleases.

Think about poor Job. He was doing alright just serving God. And the devil went to God and said, “Chief, you do know that the only reason Job is serving you is because he’s had an easy life.” And here’s what God told the devil: “I’ll give you power over Job. Do anything you want to him. But don’t kill him.” That really pleased the devil. And he made a complete mess of Job’s life. He killed Job’s children, and he allowed all of Job’s cows, donkeys and camels to be stolen.  His sheep were all burnt up. And when Job heard, all he said was, “God gives and God takes away”

That angered the devil. So he went back to God. And God was rather boastful: ‘See, I told you Job wouldn’t lose faith in me.’ And then the devil said ‘I bet you anything if he gets really sick he’s going to curse you’. And God said, ‘Go ahead, but don’t kill him.’ And Job was struck down with leprosy! So much so that even his wife told him to just curse God and die. But he didn’t. And when God finished enjoying himself at Job’s expense, taking bets with the devil, he gave back Job more than he’d had before.  No way! I don’t care who gets vexed. That’s a really wicked story.


Anyhow, back to Samson an di liar. That’s a story Winston ‘Bello’ Bell started to write. He’s an actor turned parson, so he knows about Bible stories. But his story isn’t as wicked as Job’s. Two men are living in a bus shed in New Kingston. Downtown troubles have gone uptown! And the men act out their lives in the play.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks and Ricky Rowe took Bello’s story and developed it. Hendricks is Samson. He got deported from England because he allegedly set his own house on fire and his wife and child burned to death.  And Ricky Rowe is di liar, Earsring. He loved to gamble like God and the devil. But he lost. Wife and house. And because God wasn’t betting on him, he lost everything. So he’s out on the street.Samson is a music teacher and he’s writing an opera about his life. And Earsring is a DJ. Lots of talent. So he and Samson join forces and compose songs that they perform for money right there in the bus shed. The play is very entertaining.