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On Island Profile: David Edgecombe

Nov. 12, 2006 — When he was about four years old, David Edgecombe would spend hours sitting in his mother's little shop on the island of Montserrat, listening to and watching the things people said and did. He was fascinated by the drama in how people behaved.
Today Edgecombe has never forgotten those early lessons in human nature. It is, in fact, his stock in trade. His name is almost synonymous with the University of the Virgin Islands' Reichhold Center for the Arts, which he took over in 1991, bringing the venue renown in the Caribbean and abroad.
"My sisters were all talented," he says. "One could play the piano and another could sing. The only thing I could do was mimic; it was the only talent I had."
And, as it has turned out, that was more than enough. Edgecombe never let go of that talent, although, he says, he took it for granted. "It was just part of life," he says. "I would do 'takeoffs' on people and work them up into little skits."
To hear Edgecombe tell it, everybody in Plymouth, Montserrat, had an affinity for drama. "The defense force and the police force and the hospital association would put on plays," he says. "And we would have little plays at Sunday school. In fact, I wrote my first poem when I was four years old at Sunday school."
Sunday school also awakened a musical talent: "At five years old, my friend taught me how to play the guitar."
It's evident that the mature playwright enjoys reflecting on his boyhood memories. Edgecombe is a handsome man, lanky, easygoing, with a salt-and-pepper beard. He removes his glasses and rests them on his head after getting up to open a door in the stuffy classroom. It's a holiday, and neither the school nor its air conditioning are functioning.
Leaning back comfortably, he continues: "I was always in plays in school. In high school we had what we called 'Speech Last Night,' where we produced a play. Later the school discontinued the night, so a group of about six of us started the Montserrat Student Theater, and the school let us use the stage. We did about five or six one-act plays we'd written."
After school, the group continued producing plays, forming the Montserrat Theater Group. Though the MTG no longer exists, other groups have continued the theater tradition on the island, Edgecombe says. "Montserrat has always had an active, lively theater community," he says. "There are always people writing, directing original stuff."
After high school, he says, "a lot of things happened."
"I had been a disk jockey since I was 15 at a local radio station, and, after high school, I got picked up by Radio Antilles, a powerful, 200,000-watt station — it covered the whole region. I was there about three years before I got a scholarship to Niagara College in Ontario, Canada.
"All of a sudden in college I was getting credits for doing something I loved. One of my professors took me aside one day and told me if I didn't have such a 'cavalier' attitude about writing and acting, I might get somewhere. I hadn't really considered that as a career — I'd always thought I would study law. Then, I thought about all those tomes — British law, British constitution — and I got deeper into the arts."
Edgecombe graduated from Niagara and returned to Montserrat for another three years before returning to Concordia University in Montreal, where he earned his master's degree in English and creative writing.
"I won a commission in 1977 from the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture to adapt a work of Austin Clark, one of Canada's most celebrated novelists — he is originally from Barbados — into a play," he says. "I worked in Montreal and in Nigeria. It was a very exciting time."
Edgecombe's adventures continued geographically as well as intellectually and romantically, leading him to St. Thomas. "I came to visit my girlfriend, Lenore, who was studying accounting at UVI," he says. The couple has been married 16 years. "At the time, I had had a fairly long history of involvement with UVI. The students had invited me to bring my play 'Coming Home to Roost.'"
While visiting Lenore UVI asked him to teach a summer course, after which he was asked to teach for a year on the St. Croix campus. That led to his taking over the Reichhold in 1992. Two years ago Edgecombe took a leave of absence from the Reichhold to study for his doctorate at the University of Texas at Dallas. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," he says. "If I would teach a course in playwriting, they would pay my tuition and fees for my course work."
This fall Edgecombe returned to UVI to a new a role which, he says, he is beginning to relish: director of the theater area of the UVI Fine Arts Program in the Humanities Division.
He jumped in with both feet, producing what has turned out to be a wildly popular production of the late Caribbean playwright Errol Hill's "Dance Bongo."
"I chose a play I'm familiar with," he says. "It is a tribute to Errol Hill, the man Ive long claimed as the father of Caribbean theater. Of his eight plays, this is the one I happen to think is the best."
So does his audience. The play, sold out last weekend, and ran again this weekend to sold out houses. It's no wonder — the dancing alone had the audience almost on its feet Friday night. (See "Actors, Music, Dancing: Bringing the Elements Together in 'Dance Bongo.'")
Edgecombe loves the teaching aspect of his new role: "I love students; I love working with students. I always have been more interested in creating than presenting. My real love is working to create things — the whole idea of creation really turns me on. I like bringing new things to life."
A revolution has taken place in the performing arts, Edgecombe says: "Theater hasn't changed over the last 500 years, performing on a stage, and sometimes it's difficult to get a stage. Now that has changed. If I get a chance, I will move more from street theater into dealing with across-the-board performance studies. So students will learn not just for theater, but for film, TV, video games — a multi-disciplinary approach. The horizon has greatly widened.
"If I had the money, today I would give every eight- or 10-year old a camera, and say, 'Go out and shoot, test, use your imagination'," he says. "Today, for less than $2000, you can get a digital camera and the software. Students could be making videos without having to await permission to use a stage. There's 'YouTube' on the Internet, where they can show their stuff. It's vastly different. Digital is the tool of the future. There's no limit; it's a new school."
It is certainly a far cry from the four year old sitting in his mother's shop, watching and listening to her customers as they bought sugar, flour, rice or salt fish. "'Miss Belle,' they called her, or I called her 'Nicey,'" he says.
The more Edgecombe talks, the more you see that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. "My father died before I was five," he says. "But he was always alive to my sisters and me. My mother was a storyteller. She told us what he was like and what he would say if he were here now."
"Nobody could make the Bible come alive like my mother," he says, smiling. "She would push away from the dinner table and stand up and act out the stories. And you had to be at the dinner table, and at Sunday breakfast at seven, no matter when you had come in."
So what's his favorite of the many plays he has written? With another smile he says, "That would be like asking a mother who is her favorite child."
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