“People have got to be humble. The stage, drama and the screen can make you or break you. It is not just what you put in, but it is what the subject must give and offer. If you don’t play it right, you can mess yourself up, because Guyanese are a very hard audience to please in certain areas. If Guyanese want to destroy you, they can.”
By Gordon French
His childhood was moulded by traditional rural values that provided the platform for his rise from a dynamic village boy on the East Coast of Demerara to national prominence in the performing arts.
Henry St. Cyprian Rodney takes his comedy serious and his stage performances are no joke. All of this has contributed to his longevity in the local theatre arts environment that can be especially brutal to mediocre acts.
Henry Rodney is a household name in Guyana. He has appeared in plays, skits, radio shows, television series, movies and commercials. His ability to morph into any character has earned him roles in fictional West Indian plays from novels and regional playwrights. He has graced stages across the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
While illness in recent years has slowed his career, Henry remains committed to the theatre arts. He is generally jovial, as evident by the question he posed about his middle name when he sat down to be interviewed for this feature.
“St. Cyprian is a special day on the Anglican Diocese calendar. I don’t know how I born February and they give me a September name!” Henry exclaimed.
He was born in 1959 on February 23, the same day that Guyana celebrates becoming a Republic. Henry is the third of ten children born to Monica and George Rodney. His older siblings are twin boys.
For most his life, persons embraced him as a son of Buxton.
He shared that he was born a few villages away in Beterverwagting (B.V.) where he attended St. Mary’s Ye Virgin Primary (Anglican) School before moving on to the former Buxton Secondary. Then a decision was taken to close the school in Buxton, Henry was among the first batch of students to attend Bladen Hall Multilateral, the first such school opened at the time.
He subsequently relocated to Georgetown in 1977.
Henry is married to Joan Rodney, a union that has produced three girls, Tamara, Tuana and Tchaiko. They are also proud grandparents of Devine and Zion.
ACT I – THE ROD
Growing up in the ‘country’ created some of the best memories for young Henry. He described those days when respect for elders was the order of the day and there was a cohesiveness to it. The family reared pigs, ducks, chicken, turkeys and tended a garden.
It was the responsibility of Henry and his two brothers to rise at 5 a.m. to tend to the chores.
“We had to wake up to clean the fowl pen, pig pen, feed the pigs, water the garden. We had a 45-gallon drum that we filled from the canal. It was routine. If we ever had to be awakened by my parents, it was an awakening with the rod of correction. To avoid it, we had that alarm in our heads when to rise. We all knew what we had to do. Who was to sweep the backyard, who would sweep the front yard and under the house which we call bottom-house in the country,” he reflected.
With no sister for many years, Henry said all the house chores were done by him and his brothers. They had to wash wares, mop and scrub floors.
“Today, when you are mopping you use a long stick with a Rasta wig and you mopping. In my time, you had to get down on your knees with your scraper and your floor cloth. We divided it; three bedrooms, the hall, dining room and the kitchen. The hall would take the front step; kitchen would take the back step,” Henry said.
He vividly remembers the fun because while scrubbing, the scraper made such a sweet sound that the boys used to race to create a symphony that coined the phrase, ‘scrubbing and dubbing’.
From that age, Henry understood the consequences of not getting the job done correctly.
“We never wanted to make my mother pass her hand on the step and realize that it was not clean-clean. It was two wet floor cloth across your neck back – whack whack. Those were days and we relished it. We never ran away from home.
The licks, according to Henry, did well to streamline the children. He believes that nobody in the village got more licks than the Rodneys, because when ‘licks’ were shared, his mother remembered everything and made one beating.
They were peppered with leather belts, whips (wild canes and fiddle wood sticks), machine belts, electric wire and carpenter saws. Henry has marks to show for his licks.
“Is nine set of licks used to be giving out. It was like backpay; retroactive licks. The rod of correction was the thing. It put us in line. People talk these days that it is wrong and corporal punishment. We had commissioner punishment, but it did well for us,” Henry concluded.
ACT II – EARLY STAGES
Henry started his career at the age of seven, appearing in plays and concerts at his home church, the St. Mary Ye Virgin Anglican Church.
He was always comical and had to be sent home most times from rehearsals. Luckily, he didn’t have go far as he lived next to the church, the burial ground and the school.
Henry quickly fell in love with actors from the U.S. television comedy, the Abbott and Costello show and English comedian, Norman Wisdom who he saw on screen at the village cinema.
Then at the age of 12, as he was just starting secondary school, Henry started writing skits and poems as part of his contribution to the St. Mary’s Young Eagles, a fitting name for a group of young church performers hoping for their careers to take off.
They eventually outgrew the church and dropped ‘St. Mary’s’ from the group’s name.
The group quickly started to stage their own shows at the village cinema while taking shows to various Anglican churches along the East Coast of Demerara.
“At a young age, I was in charge of getting the group prepared. We practised and we did it. Then we started moving to places like Linden, Berbice, to take the shows to the other parishes. I started to build a name from that early. They would always say I was a comic,” Henry reminisced.
In his early days, he received support from Valerie Lowe, Joycelyn and Paul Lowe; Owen Daniels, Rudolph Calendar, Peter Jones, Ingrid Shultz, Merlene Reuben, Claire Norville, and Leila, among others.
ACT III- BUXTON
Henry continues to say thanks to Buxton and Bladen Hall; however, it was Buxton where he faced some his toughest tests.
“Buxton had a reputation since then. You do not take nonsense to Buxton. If you can’t bring laughter to the Buxtonians, they will bring sticks and bottle to you,” Henry stated.
He saw concerts being broken up in Buxton and got a firsthand taste of just how unforgiving audiences can be. Henry was in secondary school at the time when the school’s steel pan band was invited to be part of a skit, which was an adaptation of celebrated Trinidadian playwright Freddie Kissoon. He was playing sixth base.
Henry recalled a guy playing an American man with no accent. His performance was flat and boring.
“I did not get in the play as yet because I was not a Buxtonian; it was a friend thing then. I knew that I could have taken the role and done it. I saw a big strong guy walk from the back of the hall, pick up my steel pan, throw it and break up the concert,” Henry recalled.
A couple weeks after, Henry had to perform at the school’s weekly show an excerpt from ‘Pork-knockers’. The place was filled and Henry begged the master of ceremonies to delay his appearance on stage.
“I was nervous because I saw the same guy who threw the steel pan and some of the bad buys from the village were there. We had to start from the back of the school, go through the crowd, and possibly touch the bad boys. From the time I started, the crowd went quiet and then uproar. I said I got them. Up to now certain parts of Buxton I walk they wouldn’t say Henry Rodney, they would say Sultan, the name from the book.”
Henry emphasised that if an artiste does not conquer the crowd, the crowd will conquer them.
“That was one of my goals, to break the backbone of Buxton; to get the people to laugh and I did it so much so that a lot of people thought I am a born Buxtonian. Breaking the back was a scary thing,” Henry said.
ACT IV – NATIONAL STAGE
At the age of 16, Henry took the lead role in the one-act play, ‘The Bicycle Yard’, at GUYFESTA finals as part of the opening productions of the National Cultural Centre.
Since then, Henry has appeared numerous times at the venue, portraying many notable characters including Papa George from ‘Calabash Alley’; Uncle Gavin; George from ‘Jezebel’; Linden from ‘Till Ah Find a Place’ 1,2,3; and Herbie from ‘Anybody See Brenda’.
Henry was also part of the cast of the popular edgy political satire, Link Show and had taken on the role of former Prime Minister Samuel Hinds.
“I always had joy doing the Link Show and doing these characters, because what happens all through the year is you look at them and study them. I would meet Sam Hinds on the streets with a broad smile, and he would remind me that I played him. We tried to bring the walk, the talk and everything as close as possible to the character, and that is why the crowd loved you,” Henry said.
The veteran actor said that he never went overboard with his portrayal of public officials, because “there is a difference between satire and ‘eye pass’.”
After returning for treatment overseas, Henry appeared in the 2016 production of ‘Who Last Laugh’, another political satire. He took on the characters of Ministers Joseph Harmon and Basil Williams.
Henry has over the years transitioned smoothly between television and the stage.
“In television, it is simpler because you can stop, you can cut, you can paste. For the stage, if you drop a line, you have to start over. In television, you don’t have to do much gesticulating as on stage, because on stage the last person at the back of the auditorium must see you, so you have to use over-emphatic gestures to make it loud and grand,” Henry pointed out.
On screen, Henry took on the lead role in Juice Junction, a production that also featured John Phillips. Years later, he appeared on the popular local sitcom ‘Agree to Dis Agree’ as the lead role of Franklyn, a black Guyanese, who appeared alongside an Indian character, Puddock.
“There were other people like GIFT who were totally against it, because they felt we were demeaning to Indians, but the people just loved the thing, saying they want to see Puddock and Franklyn, because it showed how the two races could come together,” Henry said.
ACT V – A FIGHTER
Henry has taught drama at St. Joseph High School, North Georgetown, St. Rose’s and Marian Academy. His days at St. Joseph were his most memorable.
In recent years, Henry’s health has been adversely affected. Some days are better than others. It started out with weakness in his body. The initial suspicion, locally, was Parkinson’s Disease.
According to Henry, this diagnosis has not been confirmed following additional treatment and tests overseas.
“When you are a believer, God’s report is the one that stands. I stick to that. I know some people wouldn’t understand, but who feels it knows it. Some people might feel offended that I refuse to take roles, but they don’t know the reason…” Henry stated.
It was during the initial stages of his illness that the community came together to assist him with raising much-needed funds.
“The theatre fraternity and the society as a whole have really supported me and I can’t stop thanking them for what they did. They really went over the top, out of the way to ensure that I returned to normalcy. I am a fighter and I continue to fight with the support I continue to receive. If I were different, definitely my situation would have been different for the most part,” Henry stated.
He especially thanked Kwesi Oginga – who lived in the same street with him in in BV – for providing him the opportunities in the industry. He also noted that Francis Quamina Farrier drove to BV, picked him up and took him to shows.
Henry stated that he is forever grateful to Margaret Lawrence and Desiree Edghill, who he described as undoubtedly the best pound-for-pound actress in Guyana.
He said theatre is rising, but cautioned young actors to have humility.
“People have got to be humble. The stage, drama and the screen can make you or break you. It is not just what you put in, but it is what the subject must give and offer. If you don’t play it right, you can mess yourself up, because Guyanese are a very hard audience to please in certain areas. If Guyanese want to destroy you, they can,” Henry stated.
He said that the Theatre Guild is more open, and the youth should take advantage of this.
“That is what we expect from them. Not to tear down each other, but to come together and see theatre for what it is. Theatre has brought people together; it has brought races together; it is strong, and it will live on once we do the right thing,” Henry stated.
He is of the view that local singer, Dave Martins asked a pertinent question, ‘Where are your heroes Caribbean?’ which aptly applies to the local theatre arts, as there are minimal efforts made to give contributors their flowers before they die.
When ayuh will wake up?
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