Jamaican Shakespeare comes alive at the Gateway Academy...

A group of Jamaican students travelled to Tilbury recently to discover the history of the port as it gears up toward its celebrations to commemorate the 70th anniversary of welcoming the Empire Windrush, bringing with it 492 Jamaican passengers seeking work on the London transport system. The port authority, community groups, and Thurrock Council will be organising a range of events to celebrate the immigrants’ arrival and contribution to modern Thurrock and the UK.

The Jamaican students, along with their teachers from Knox College, Clarendon, visited the Port of Tilbury to find out more about the arrival of some of the first immigrants from Jamaica and the West Indies, who docked at Tilbury in 1948. The visit to Tilbury was part of a week-long trip to the UK for the students, who won the chance to fly to London after winning a nationwide competition, the Shakespeare Schools’ Championship, in June last year. During their visit, they also performed their winning performance of The Merchant of Venice at the Gateway Academy in Tilbury, to a group of primary school and Year 7 students after the tour of the port, followed by their main performance in Hammersmith on Tuesday.

CEO of Generating Genius, the UK-based charity behind the Shakespeare Schools’ Championship, Dr Tony Sewell, said “This project isn’t just about Shakespeare, it’s also about keeping Jamaican culture alive because unfortunately I do think it is dying a little bit here. These children don’t know anything really about the Windrush, because it’s not taught in schools. All they know that is a few hundred years ago some people left Jamaica and settled over in England. The funny thing is, some of these children could have been ‘children of the Windrush’, with grandparents or other relatives who travelled on the ship. But as it turns out they are the ancestors of people who actually stayed in Jamaica, so I think it will be a really eye-opening experience for them to see a part of the culture they didn’t know about before.”

In order to win the first prize in the Shakespeare Schools’ Championship, which was broadcast on Jamaican national television, the Knox College students performed an abridged version of The Merchant of Venice, strictly only using the original Shakespearean language. They were, however, encouraged to incorporate Jamaican cultural references within their performances, such as music and dance.

Sheryl Simms, Knox College’s Theatre and Creative Arts teacher and director of the winning performance, said “It was a bit of a shock when we got here, because it’s so unlike what we are used to and for some of the children it is the first time that they have ever left Jamaica. We have had such a good time so far and we are just really excited to be here in London, and also to perform the Merchant of Venice while we are here. We all worked so hard to win the competition, and the students were so excited to win and to realise that we would be coming to England.”

Sonia Ferguson, an ex-Knox College student and current PR officer of the Past Students Association in Toronto where she now lives, explained how beneficial the trip would be to the students. She said “Even though it is so cold and has been a bit of a shock for them, the hope is that they will remember it as a positive experience because it is so different to home. This trip will, and has already, given them the chance to experience a whole new culture and country, as well as performing in front of two very different audiences to what they are used to. As ex-students, we are so pleased that our support for the creative arts at Knox College have paid off. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them.”

A group of students from the Gateway Academy in Tilbury who are taking part in the Thurrock’s Next Top Boss competition also attended the tour of the port and greeted the Jamaican students. They are currently working with the Port of Tilbury on a social media campaign to promote and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the ship’s arrival.

Miss Emma James, who teaches at the Gateway Academy and mentors the students involved with the Thurrock’s Next Top Boss, said “We are really excited to have met the Jamaican students and watch their performance. It has tied in so well with the work we have been doing for Thurrock’s Next Top Boss and will not only complement what they have done at school but also hopefully give them more of an awareness of the importance of Tilbury Port through history.”

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