“I feel that life is not about what you look like or what you own; it’s all about the person you’ve become. My beauty comes from within, as do my strength, courage, compassion and dignity.”
By Dennis Nichols
She has been one of the more renowned personalities in popular Guyanese culture over the past three decades;
some would say a household name. But for this week’s special person, her early childhood and teenage years were anything but auspicious. She implies that the period was a traumatic one, characterized by loneliness and abuse, and it wasn’t until she was on the threshold of adulthood that her aggressive spirit, audacity and passion for living came to the fore in a positive and rewarding manner. She is health educator/AIDS awareness advocate, consultant, writer, actress, and theatre professional, Desiree Adele Edghill.
Desiree was born in McDoom, East Bank Demerara, delivered by a midwife in August 1955. Her parents were Marie Thorpe and Ivan Hodge, the former being the daughter of a blue-eyed Portuguese Madeiran named Albert Thorpe.
She discloses that her father operated a haberdashery store on Broad Street, Charlestown. She remembers her parents placing her on the store counter ‘like a doll’ because it was thought that she brought luck to the family, and maybe, she suggests, as a ploy to attract customers. But her luck ran out after her parents separated when she was six, and she went to live with a relative in Kitty, where she attended St. James-the-Less Primary School.
“I was actually brought up by my father’s godmother’s daughter, Cousin Lily, in Stanley Place. She didn’t allow me to have friends. She was poor, and I didn’t have any fancy things either; I wore my school shoes to Sunday School . . . but she did send me to school. Sometimes I didn’t have a solid meal; the bakes we had in the morning, I would carry two to school for lunch,”
she wistfully recalls. There were other childhood memories, climbing trees, struggling to control her aggression and, because of her tomboyish nature, landing her first acting role, as Joseph, in a nativity play at her church.
From primary school, she moved on to Christ Church Secondary where, she admits, she was a ‘force-ripe’ girl, hanging out with the bigger students and wanting to get into pageantry and modelling. But outside of school she still had no friends and would walk to and from school along Thomas ‘Long’ Road by herself, until an incident occurred one day, in which a policeman riding a bicycle unexpectedly grabbed at her inappropriately. She was only 13 then, and after that unsettling violation, was allowed to walk with a friend.
At high school she was still an angry child,and remembers beating up a girl who exposed her lunch bakes one day, after which the girl’s mother intervened with the appropriate ‘punishment’ of sending a proper lunch with her daughter for Desiree. She and the girl later became close friends.
She remained at Christ Church, and while there at the age of 17, the ‘big thing’ happened. Desiree became pregnant, and gave birth to her eldest child, a girl, in 1972. She was quick to point out that she went with the young man willingly although later recognizing that he may have taken advantage of her naiveté and need to feel loved.
“I met somebody for the first time who told me that they loved me, and he’d bring stuff for me, and you know when you’re an abused child, and you’re poor, and all these mishaps and all this anger and
somebody comes and … gives you everything; he didn’t rape me or anything … it was just wanting someone to love me,” she confided.
These feelings and needs may have been heightened by the fact that her Cousin Lily always drilled into her the idea that she was born in ‘a hard guava season month’. Anyway, she had her baby, and moved on. She even went back to school afterward, because of her passion for education.
WORKING DAYS AND FAMILY
Desiree’s first job was a spin-off from being a Colgate-Palmolive commission salesgirl, pushing a trolley at the old Co-op Complex on Regent Street. One day she threw her sales pitch to a man who turned out to be the manager of the complex. He was so impressed with her sales acumen that he offered her a permanent job there on the spot, a serendipitous move which led to her meeting the father of her other five children, three girls and two boys.
With her commitment to job and family, Desiree wasn’t able to further her education at the tertiary level until twenty years after she left Christ Church. This was at the University of Guyana where she obtained a Diploma in Public Communications in 1992.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Her second job, as a sales clerk at Guyana Stores Ltd again led to a chance encounter that took her career in a new direction – acting.
It happened after she had gotten into an altercation with a fellow employee there, which was observed by Public Relations Officer, Clayton Hinds, who happened to be the PRO as well as coordinator of the drama group called ‘People Working in Total Togetherness’ (PEWITT) which was then staging its yearly production. He wanted her to play a role of similar aggression to the one he had just witnessed, and tied her compliance to permanent employment with the company.
She did, landing her first on-stage role in ‘The Goose and The Gander’ at the Theatre Guild in 1980, and, as we say, the rest is history. She discovered that she liked acting partly because she could put the intensity of her passion and anger to productive use.
A number of roles followed, including that of a prostitute in ‘The Pork-knocker’(1981) followed by ‘Juno and the Paycock’ in 1982 for which she received her first award, Runner-up Best Supporting Actress, and Ian Valz’s ‘House of Pressure’ at the National Cultural Centre, her first professional performance. She soon left her job at Guyana Stores to do theatre full-time.
Over the years Desiree received numerous awards and has acted in, produced, and directed, over 100 plays, three of which stand out in her memory. They are Ian Valz’s ‘Take a Giant Step’ in 1989, in which she played the female lead, (her most challenging role) Ronald Hollingsworth’s ‘Till Ah Find a Place 3’, in which she plays the interloper, Donna, (her most enjoyable role) and another Ian Valz production ‘Two is A Crowd’ in which she said she gave her best performance. This play was also staged in Trinidad at Carifesta ‘92.
ANOTHER CHAPTER – AIDS
Later that year another chapter started in Desiree’s life. This was when she and longtime friend Andre Sobryan, along with three other theatre personalities, launched Artistes in Direct Support, (AIDS) a community service organization that tackled head-on the perception of the scourge that was threatening to overwhelm our country’s health care system, the Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome.
They did their first production on World AIDS Day, December 2, of that year. It is now a yearly production directed by Desiree, named ‘The Flame and the Ribbon’. There was at that time a great deal of ignorance and fear concerning ‘the virus’ and persons who were known to be living with AIDS were in danger of becoming social outcasts. One such person was popular gay theatre maverick, Andre Sobryan himself.
Desiree vividly recounted her first meeting with Andre at the Theatre Guild in 1982, which she admitted wasn’t a particularly friendly one, as he had been critical of her acting skills. She retaliated aggressively at first, but gradually mellowed when she realized that his ‘malicious’ criticisms were actually helping her become a better performer.
She intimated that they soon became close friends, even soul mates, over the years, and collaborated on a number of productions, some of which Sobryan directed. During that period Desire teamed up with him and radio broadcaster, Margaret Lawrence to form a production company named MAD, (Margaret, Andre & Desiree). Things seemed to be going well for all of them, until 1989, when Andre, in an effort to secure a visa for the United States, took a medical examination and discovered that he was HIV-positive. Again Desiree recalls vividly the day she found out about it. Andre had invited a group of his friends to dinner, including Desiree and Margaret.
“He asked if we knew why he had invited us to dinner, and we said ‘Yes, it’s because you’re leaving us’ (to go to America) Then he said ‘No that’s not the reason why. I didn’t get through at the embassy; I didn’t pass my medical.’ Then he told us he had the virus. It was crushing. We’d had some wine and we were in high spirits. He said he wanted us, his friends, to be the first to know. He also said that if we didn’t want to be his friends anymore, he’d understand, and if that was the case, he’d prefer if we left rather than stay and be hypocrites.”
Desiree was the first to pledge her continued friendship ‘till the end’. And that’s exactly how things went.
After helping to launch AIDS, Desiree got into full-time activism to educate mostly young people about the disease, along with the stigma and discrimination attached to it. She did this not only through theatre, but also through numerous projects, workshops, television serial dramas, skits, youth sessions, employee-training sessions, and hundreds of other AIDS-related programmes throughout Guyana and the Caricom region. She is presently working on this year’s ‘Flame and the Ribbon’ production.
She has written and directed over 200 skits, dealing with Stigma and Discrimination, Abstinence, STIs, Condom Use, Relationships, Risk Reduction, Behaviour Change, Safe Sex, Living with HIV and Domestic Violence, which are performed at various activities around Guyana. Additionally, she produced and directed 208 “Youth Talent & Voices” (YTV) TV and radio programmes, and worked on the creation of all the materials for the “Words Have Power” Mass Media Campaign which focused on Reducing Stigma and Discrimination of Persons living with HIV & AIDS.
She coordinated, wrote and directed street theatre programmes in Regions, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10, and was Production Manager of the PAHO/WHO-funded TV Movie “A Force to Reckon”, that focused on youth and HIV risk. She wrote and directed the USAID-funded TV Movie “Against all Odds”, first performed at the National Cultural Centre for World AIDS Day in 2004, which dealt with stigma and discrimination in the workplace, and life after HIV. This show was launched at the Sidewalk Café, for stakeholders, and later shown at the Metropole Cinema, and on TV stations locally. It was also used for educational purposes by various groups.
Desiree was also at the helm of two 15-minute serial dramas titled “Keep the Light On”, two 10-minute ones for out-of-school youths, which dealt with, “Alcohol Use, Peer pressure and Gender and HIV Risk”, and ten 5-minute dramas,”Sharing the Vision” for CARICOM, on the Caribbean Single Market Economy. (CSME)
Among her community service contributions was serving as Chairperson of the National AIDS Committee, being an executive member of the Guyana Human Rights Association, and Chairperson of the Network for Community Commitment (NCC). Presently she sits as the Vice-chair on the Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) for Global Fund in Guyana, representing the NGO Constituency.
Desiree has received numerous awards for her activities in these fields, including the USAID/Family Health International Innovation Award in May 2002, the CARICOM/PANCAP and Department for International Development (DFID), “Champion for Change” awards twice, in St Kitts and Nevis, in 2004, and in Barbados, in 2006. She also received the Wordsworth McAndrew Award, for “Contribution to Guyana’s Culture & Heritage” in New York in 2004, and the Ministry of Health/NAPS (National AIDS Programme Secretariat) “Long Standing Service” Award, Guyana, December 2013. That’s a handful!
Our ‘special person’ is evidently an overachiever but concludes simply, “I feel that life is not about what you look like or what you own; it’s all about the person you’ve become. My beauty comes from within, as do my strength, courage, compassion and dignity.”
Well said, and remarkably well done, Desiree Edghill.
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