Caymanian Grace Gealey, who portrays Anika Calhoun on the hit TV series “Empire,” learned her craft in the early stages particularly from local mentors Nasaria Chollette, an artist and former drama teacher, and Henry Muttoo, artistic director at the Cayman National Cultural Foundation.
Gealy and her teachers/mentors talked recently about her education in the arts and the state of drama education in Cayman in general.
Chollette was Gealey’s drama teacher at John Gray High School. Gealey said that Chollette always encouraged and cultivated an environment where she had the freedom to express, play, discover and create.
“These times were the beginning of truly tapping into what I had to offer as a unique individual, and the essential role that improvisation provides,” Gealey said.
“I didn’t realize how much I was creating the basis of my acting foundation at the time. This is exactly what I would shift in the schools [now]: to implement these basics in the elementary stages so that by the time the students are in middle school, they can start to add the technical aspects. At the high school stage, they would be so far along their process that the respect and knowledge for the craft and art would be at a much more intricate level.”
Chollette recalled, “We did a lot of improvisations. I think it is important, as it develops the skills that you need to make choices in a split second.
“My whole thing about teaching was the path that each individual child takes to their success. What I found that Cayman was lacking in drama education was that the students were not exposed to a lot of theater from different places. I wrote a lot so I could provide my students with pieces to perform that related to their culture. I wrote mostly skits and monologues, so that gave them good experience and the ability to memorize.”
Chollette added that she believes drama “is on the lowest rung [in public education] and does not get enough attention. It does not get enough respect, even from the parents.”
However, since Gealy’s role in “Empire,” she said, “people are only now seeing that acting is a possibility as a career. They only value it when you make it.”
She noted that “Grace has always been a very confident young woman and she possessed tenacity. It has been a struggle, I don’t want anybody here to think that she got that part just like that. She has done the work and her family has supported her. Faith [Gealey’s sister] deserves her kudos too, because as the oldest sister she took the responsibility and made sure that Grace had what she needed in order for her to continue to pound the pavement and to give it a shot.”
Faith Gealey, a speech language pathologist, at one time was a drama teacher’s aide. She said local drama education is not as practical as it should be.
“There is pretty limited opportunity for hands-on experience unless you are involved with Cayman Drama Society at Prospect Playhouse,” she said, adding that “activities at the Harquail Theatre, including Rundown, are a good mix, and very representative of the society.”
She thinks Cayman should invest in musical storytelling productions, which could not only be an opportunity for talent on island, but also a potential tourist attraction.
“It would be a perfect way to get Caymanians involved who are into singing, dancing and performing. They could then have a performance-based job. There are so many opportunities; it just involves people thinking outside of the box,” she said.
When Gealy was in her final year at the University of South Florida, she performed in the USF production of “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,” written by Trinidadian actor-playwright Errol John and directed by Muttoo. It had premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Gealy played the part of Rosa, a girl of about 18 years old.
“At that point, she was slightly older than the character,” Muttoo said, “so she had enough time to process Rosa’s experience. She would understand both the words of the play and subtext of the lines and the character. I tried to get everybody to access their inner feelings, and to get to the role from underneath rather from above. Directors like to see is how you improve from day to day.
“You want to see that the actor is investing that work into the script, so their development becomes incremental. Each day the character is showing themselves more and more to you so that you stop seeing the person. Rosa’s character and circumstance was very different from Grace’s, but she played Rosa perfectly.”
Gealy recalls that she “was so proud that was the final production I did before graduating from my undergraduate program. Working with Henry and Fanni [Green, USF professor] shifted me to a new level of vulnerability, honesty, urgency and depth. It was a life-changing experience.”
Bringing the subject back to drama education in Cayman, Muttoo said that while there is a strong art and music program in place here, he believes that the territory should be seriously encouraging young people to be actors.
Young at Arts
One of the programs designed to encouraged young people in drama is the CNCF-Butterfield Young at Arts program. Last summer, participants in the Young at Art summer camp staged the play “Ti Jean and his Brothers,” the story of a Caribbean family in crisis by St. Lucian poet laureate Derek Walcott.
“We are doing another one this year,” Muttoo said. “We are looking at several scripts to decide on.
“Grace has come in and tutored the students, and obviously we want her to come back. It is inspiring for the kids and particularly now that they have a ceiling to aim at.”