Brian Heap, a generous teacher and inspiring figure in Jamaican theater, dies at age 73 (2024)

UK-born, Jamaica-based educator, writer and theatre director Brian Heap. Photo previously supplied by Heap; used with permission.

On March 24, England-born educator and stalwart of Jamaican theatre Brian Heap died at the age of 73. The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper reported that he “had been quietly ailing since September last year [and] passed away while in hospice care.”

Heap is being mourned by many in Jamaica’s theatre world and beyond. In 2020, he was selected as the Caribbean regional winner of the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize for his powerful story of grief and family entitled “Mafootoo.”

READ MORE: Speaking with Jamaica’s Brian Heap, Caribbean regional winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Partnering with the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, where he had served as director before his retirement, he donated part of his prize money to set up two contests: a playwriting and a short story competition for students of the University of the West Indies (UWI).

Fellow writer and poet Pamela Mordecai posted on X (formerly Twitter):

Brian Heap leave us and gone to heaven! Will miss you, bredren. May the angels lead you into Paradise where there will be nuff smadi dat will welcome you wid open arms. Condolences and comfort to all who are dear to you…

— Pamela Mordecai (@Refracting) March 26, 2024

“Smadi” is a Jamaican term for an important or significant person.

Puerto Rico-based poet and academic Loretta Collins Klobah recalled:

Another person who mentored me kindly in Jamaica has passed on. Brian Heap, was a professor of theatre at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, when he talked to me about the island's drama and helped me find scripts from the annual Pantomime. https://t.co/lfmmEaRIZG https://t.co/I6AX7m5zdN

— 12 Foot Neon Woman (@12FootNeonWoman) March 26, 2024

According to his brother, Heap came to Jamaica as a young graduate teacher from “a very working class town in Lancashire.” He was supposed to stay for just two years but never left. Educated at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the University of Leeds, he later completed his doctorate at UWI.

His impact on theatre and education in Jamaica for the past 40-plus years was extraordinary. He taught at Campion College, a high school, and at St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College, both in Kingston, before turning to drama. He later served as Director of Studies at the Jamaica School of Drama (the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts). He was also staff tutor in drama at UWI's Mona campus from 1975. Arriving as a teacher, he fell in love with Jamaica's rich theatre tradition and is often described as “Jamaican by assimilation.”

READ MORE: Jamaica’s Brian Heap, Caribbean regional winner of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, talks storytelling

One of Heap's major achievements was his revival, in 2003, of the University Players, which had become dormant. The group went on to stage both Caribbean and classic plays and musicals to great acclaim, receiving multiple nominations for Jamaica's International Theatre Institute Actor Boy Awards. In 2018, he retired from his position as its artistic director, as well as from his duties as staff tutor and head of the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts.

Over the course of his career, Heap directed 15 of Jamaica’s annual pantomimes. With his love of Jamaican history and culture, he was the inspiration behind “Augus’ Mawnin’,” an artistic celebration of Emancipation Day (August 1), which was also performed overseas for audiences in the Jamaican diaspora.

In addition, he appeared in productions of Lorraine Hansberry's “Raisin in the Sun,” Trevor Rhone's “School's Out,” Louis Marriott's “Bedward” and Derek Walcott's “Remembrance,” and in the pantomimes “Pirate Princess,” and “Bruckins.” He has written several books, conference papers and articles, and received the Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica in 2002.

In paying tribute to Heap, actress, colleague and friend Hilary Nicholson told Global Voices, “Brian had tremendous intellectual and artistic generosity; he did his work so that others could find and develop their talents in the arts, particularly in theatre arts. He enabled others to enjoy their talents and skills, whether he was working with deaf children, university students, or other colleagues in the theatre.”

She remembered him as “an encouraging, kind and caring theatre director — never imposing his will, but always seeking to connect with others so that they would grow, even as the artistic piece would grow. Connection meant so much to him; he was a people person.”

Noting that Heap worked for years in process drama, drama in education, and drama for development, Nicholson stressed his love for Jamaica and its culture: “He had the ability to incorporate ordinary details of Jamaican culture in his work and to turn the ordinary into something special.”

Indeed, Heap’s teaching and directing style was much admired:

With his dry wit and deadpan delivery, Mr Heap would just say “Dat is it, curtains. Show done. Thanks for coming.”
But that bellied so much more. He really taught, shaped and nurtured. In his classes and on the stage all were made to feel like the belonged, were equal. RIP https://t.co/8iyptxSih2

— Joy Bwoy (@gavinmyaz) March 26, 2024

Journalist Rodney Campbell shared:

Heard last night that Brian Heap left this earthly land…thought he decided to relax and enjoy his years after much toiling in the trenches of the arts, but it seems he wasn't well a while…the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord#RIPWholeHeap

— Rodney S. O. Campbell (@rodneytwit) March 25, 2024

Actress Dahlia Harris posted:

Brian Heap. A proper tribute to come but at this moment I can only say your name with the love and honour I have in my heart. Rest well 💜

— Dahlia Harris (@DahliaHarris) March 24, 2024

Later adding:

Another theatre stalwart. 💔 We will miss your light Brian. pic.twitter.com/Q8sN4kVdJL

— Dahlia Harris (@DahliaHarris) March 24, 2024

Brian Heap, a generous teacher and inspiring figure in Jamaican theater, dies at age 73 (2024)

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