Errol Jones: a gentleman and a player

A founder member of Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop, Errol Jones was often called the region’s finest actor. Judy Raymond marks his passing

Errol Jones as Makak in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop production of Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Errol Jones possessed two qualities that are unusual in an actor, said Eunice Alleyne: greatness and humility. Other tributes bore out what she said when Alleyne, his friend and fellow member of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), spoke at a memorial ceremony held at the TTW after Jones died in June, aged 87.

Jones became a founder member of the workshop – Derek Walcott’s company – in 1959. By that time he had already been involved in theatre for a decade: he had begun his career by shaking the thunder sheet in a 1949 production by the Whitehall Players, led by Errol Hill and Errol John.

But for the next half-century and more, Errol Jones would be inextricably associated with Walcott. Even before he joined the TTW, he had appeared in Walcott’s Henri Christophe, directed by Hill in 1954, with a prologue written by Dr Eric Williams. He was also in Drums and Colours, the epic commissioned for the 1958 inauguration of the Federation of the West Indies. (Staged in the Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, the federal capital, it was plagued by such bad weather that the cast renamed the show Drums and Watercolours.)

Jones created many roles in Walcott’s plays, among them the Devil in Ti-Jean and his Brothers (his favourite among Walcott’s works) and Catalinion, Don Juan’s servant in The Joker of Seville. He also appeared in the TTW’s productions of the classics of world theatre. But perhaps his greatest role was as Makak in Dream on Monkey Mountain, which Walcott dedicated to him and the company. First performed in Toronto in 1967, Dream is a complex, difficult play about the Caribbean search for identity, in which the quixotic charcoal-burner, an “old, charred, indomitable stump of a man”, has visions of being a king in Africa. Jones brought both grandeur and pathos to Makak, who is “a fool, like all heroes”, as Walcott writes of another of his characters, Ti-Jean.

Barbadian writer George Lamming felt that Jones’s performances gave Walcott’s work “a lucidity which few other actors could have achieved. And,” he added, remembering Jones last June, “he carried this distinction with a personal grace and modesty which deepened the loyalty of all his admirers.”

When the TTW held a celebration to mark his 70th birthday, that modesty led Jones to comment, “I can’t understand all the fuss.” But his colleague Albert Laveau, the TTW’s artistic director, described him then as “a national treasure” – a fact that had already been recognised with both a national award and one of the first lifetime achievement awards given by the National Drama Association. He also received an award from a Barbadian theatre group, which came as no surprise, because Jones was hailed more than once as the region’s finest actor: his larger-than-life presence and gravelly declamatory style had a wide appeal.

But Jones’s peers felt not only professional respect but also personal affection for him, thanks to his simple decency and his complete lack – apart from stage fright – of an artistic temperament. He helped keep the volatile TTW together, both before and after Walcott’s departure. As Laveau diplomatically put it, “He could always be relied upon to bring a certain calm objectivity to the flare-ups that tended to take place.” Jones and Stanley Marshall ran the company for 12 years after Jones retired in 1977 from his day job as deputy chief immigration officer. In the flesh, Jones was mild-mannered and soft-spoken, utterly different from his stage persona as a big man with a huge voice.

“He has so many gifts,” said Laveau. “The gift of voice, the gift of presence, the gift of experience – and he’s so generous with them.” Jones shared that experience through mentoring, teaching and directing. Actor Michael Cherrie was quoted as saying Jones had been a father figure to him and other young actors: “There are three or four generations grown in the theatre because of Errol.”

Jones had studied theatre in New York on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1962, and was later actor-in-residence at a US college. He was the first director of Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, and appeared in the dramatised version of The Wine of Astonishment. He was hailed for his work in Helen Camps’s production of the apartheid-era South African play Sizwe Bansi is Dead.

Naturally, Jones took a major part in the revival of the TTW after Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992. He played Billy Blue, the narrator of Walcott’s version of the Odyssey, with which the company toured internationally.
Jones was equally content, however, in a humbler role, travelling around Trinidad & Tobago, even in his seventies, with the TTW’s theatre-in-education project, which staged exam texts for schools. In this way he brought his presence and his passion for theatre to yet another generation of audiences.