If you’ve been to Trinidad, you might have shared a taxi with Michael Cherrie, or passed him on the streets of Port of Spain or Trincity en route to a class, a rehearsal, a show, or a shoot. You might not have known that this genial fellow wearing the khaki shorts, T-shirt, sandals and backpack is the man they call “the Black Brando” and one of the greatest acting talents Trinidad—and indeed the Caribbean diaspora—has ever produced.
It’s been a distinguished road from winning primary school poetry recital competitions at Rosary Boys’ RC School in Trinidad to prompting a high-profile fracas between British Equity and the legendary theatre director Sir Peter Hall. And with acting heroes like Anthony Hopkins, Errol Jones, and Sidney Poitier, one would expect nothing less.
Michael Cherrie’s acting career began rather unexpectedly in 1986 as a student of the prestigious all-boys’ St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, Trinidad, doing a production of Pirates of Penzance under Trinidadian actress and director Sonya Moze. The experience made such an impression on Cherrie and his schoolmates that, with the help of actor and St Mary’s teacher Peter Kelly (and the appeal of doing co-productions with all-female sister school St Joseph’s Convent), they revived drama at St Mary’s and began to enter the Secondary Schools Drama Competition. Brief stints as a bank teller and at the Board of Inland Revenue notwithstanding, a career as a full-time artist and actor seemed almost inevitable. Cherrie still credits Moze and Kelly, along with Cyril Collier and Belinda Barnes, with inspiring him to pursue his acting dreams.
Both in those early years and subsequently, Cherrie worked with some of Trinidad’s most renowned playwrights, actors and directors—Derek Walcott, Tony Hall, the late John Isaacs, Albert Laveau, Jacqui Chan and Rawle Gibbons. He performed in both local and touring productions by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, including such seminal works as Dream on Monkey Mountain (1994), Ti-Jean & His Brothers (1995), and The Joker of Seville, for which he won the 1994 Cacique Award for Best Supporting Actor from the National Drama Association. He played the title role in I, Marcus Garvey (1997) at the Festival Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, directed by Rawle Gibbons; and Philo in The Dragon Can’t Dance (1998) at the Austin Arts Theatre in Connecticut, under the direction of Tony Hall.
It was his performance in Britain’s Channel 4 television production of Kittitian-born Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage (1996), however, that took Cherrie’s career to an entirely new level. But getting the part wasn’t easy. Cherrie found out about the big audition just the day before, and when he got there he was sure he was auditioning for Peter Brook instead of Peter Hall. For Hall’s part, he had been impressed by the talent that passed through the Trinidad Theatre Workshop auditions, but was dismayed by what he described as a tendency to imitate British and American acting styles. So when Cherrie introduced his audition piece from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Hall had all but given up.
Nevertheless, Hall was struck by a Benedick that was “witty and absolutely on the button in shape and form.” He reportedly turned to author and screenwriter Phillips, declaring that they had found their lead. Phillips, however, was still unconvinced. He later said he thought “Peter must have sunstroke, because I didn’t see anything special about Michael, but he was absolutely right.” Hall later proclaimed that Cherrie “took to the camera as if embarking on a love affair.”
Cherrie made his British television debut in The Final Passage to universal critical acclaim. Hall, renowned for discovering new talent, said of Cherrie: “He has a tremendous, witty, dangerous, sexy quality. Although it’s a dangerous label, he is very much like a young Marlon Brando.”
But being the “Black Brando” was not all it was cracked up to be. Hall—the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company—was so taken with Cherrie that he offered him roles in productions of Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus at the National Theatre, and a production of Titus Andronicus at the New Globe. But that’s when British Equity, at the behest of their Afro-Asian arm, tried to have Cherrie’s work authorisation denied, claiming he was taking work away from qualified British actors. Hall was furious, and went to the media, generating widespread coverage of the issue. “[Equity] has acted like the most paranoid and old-fashioned protection society imaginable,” he declared indignantly.
In the end, however, Cherrie was denied a work permit to perform in England. It was a heartbreaking experience for him, but a call to arms as well. “What makes my situation unfair is that a lot of [British] actors and directors and film-makers constantly come to the Caribbean and it’s never a problem with us, even though we have our own quality actors and directors,” he argues. “Yet when an opportunity arises for Caribbean artistes to go out and do work on an international basis, they constantly meet with this problem of talent unions and having to constantly make a case for a work permit…The British stance has basically been a protectionist one, so I’m thinking we may have to do the same.”
Indeed, upon returning to Trinidad in 1996, Cherrie began working with the National Drama Association to form an artists’ collective to protect the interests of artists in every sector of the cultural and performing industries. The road has been incredibly challenging, however, and more than ten years on, the collective is yet to be formed. “We have the models of British Equity and American Equity,” he says, “but we have yet to determine in this country what is equitable for artists. It has to happen.”
Over the next few years, he was seen in major roles in Men of Grey II: Flight of the Ibis (1996), Angel in a Cage (1997) for Canadian television, and the Trinidadian soap opera Westwood Park (1998). He also took on what he considers his most challenging and most rewarding stage performance: the title role in Othello at the Houston Shakespeare Festival in 2000.
Cherrie received another incredible opportunity when he was cast in the film adaptation of VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur (2001), directed by Ismail Merchant and produced by Merchant/Ivory Films. Ironically, the film generated a fair amount of local indignation at the use of actors from India to play Indo-Trinidadian characters in a production filmed in Trinidad. Cherrie was among the few local actors, like Albert Laveau and Patti-Anne Ali, chosen for a speaking part.
It was also around this time that Cherrie felt he was hitting a plateau. “As an actor in Trinidad, it’s hard. You’re forced to do work that you’d rather not do…then you become over-exposed,” he explained. “I think as a Trinidadian artist, a Caribbean artist, it behoves you to go outside every now and then to get a world-view—an artistic world-view, a life world-view—and see and try to tell people’s stories beyond your own experience. To me, that’s one of the lures of acting.”
So in 2001, he began a round of drama-school auditions. Each time, he would present his contrasting monologues from Shakespeare and The Dragon Can’t Dance. He would then perform his chosen song, usually “Old Man River” from Showboat. But consistently, he would be asked to perform something from his own country, some calypso. Caught slightly off-guard, the long-time fan of Tobagonian calypsonian Shadow launched into a rendition of Shadow’s Calypso Monarch-winning “You Lookin’ For Horn”. Cherrie ended up “horning” each programme but his final choice, the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver, Colorado (NTC).
After completing the Master of Fine Arts programme at NTC, he was faced with a familiar obstacle: immigration problems. Despite being a member of the American Actors’ Equity Association, he was denied the opportunity of an acting career in the United States. He was philosophical about it, however. “It was a sign that at this particular point in my journey, I had to go back to Trinidad,” he explained. “And I’m glad I did because there’s been some great stuff.”
That is a bit of an understatement. In fact, Cherrie has played major roles in some of the most significant and exciting projects to come out of Trinidad in the last few years. He played Samson/Inspector Samuels in the Tony Hall and David Rudder calypso musical, The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club, both in the first production at Indiana State University’s Summerstage in 2004, and in its Trinidad debut at Queen’s Hall in 2006.
He also played Father Devine in the controversial Yao Ramesar film Sista God, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. “I was really impressed with Yao’s eye,” Cherrie said in praise of Ramesar. “I’ve never seen a director or cinematographer use natural light like Yao.” Sista God generated a fair amount of debate locally and internationally for both its style and content. But while viewers may have been left slightly perplexed by the non-linear narrative of the film, Cherrie found the approach invigorating. “There was something very loose about the process, which was almost frightening. [Yao] would just throw something out at you and you would just kind of riff, and I found it very helpful and challenging as an actor. It made you really stretch in terms of both the verbal and nonverbal communication.”
After that, Cherrie worked with long-time friend and colleague Wendell Manwarren and rapso group 3Canal in their production of Caribbeana Imperia in Washington, DC last summer. Cherrie teamed up with 3Canal again this year over the Carnival season in Trinidad to play Fitzroy the Midnight Robber in their 3Canal Bacchanal Show, directed by Manwarren.
His most recent project, The Ghost of Hing King Estate, directed by Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ové, is carded for a May television debut in Trinidad. Estate was a distinct contrast to his work on Sista God, but equally rewarding. “I enjoyed every minute of working with Horace, and would jump at the opportunity to work with him again,” Cherrie gushed. “His whole thing as a director is about the reality of the story and the situation—is how we’re framing it, staging it, performing it, believable?”
Set in Trinidad and based on a true story, The Ghost of Hing King Estate also stars accomplished Trinidadian actors Errol Sitahal, Susan Hannays-Abraham, Wendell Manwarren, and Cecilia Salazar. Cherrie plays Sgt Alfred, one of the leading characters. “[He’s] not a very likeable character, which is always a challenge to play,” says Cherrie with a smirk. “It’s fun, but it’s always about balance and finding the opposites and complexity of the character.”
Cherrie is also studying for a degree in film from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. The programme is in its first year, and is one he’s extremely enthusiastic about. He hopes that programmes like these will help stimulate the development of the local film industry in every respect. “We need to see ourselves on film. It’s our church, it’s seeing our dreams our nightmares—what we can be, what we despise—and coming to terms with them,” Cherrie explains. “And if we want to have really good films telling our really amazing stories, we will need that art of adaptation—to be able to translate that literary narrative into a narrative of action.”
So what next for the Black Brando? He’s got that degree to complete. He just started filming a new soap opera with local television director and producer Danielle Dieffenthaller. He’s set to play Walter Lee Younger in a production of A Raisin in the Sun in Indiana this summer. And as an alumnus of the theatre-in-education pioneers Arts In Action, he also relishes every opportunity to teach drama and movement to young people, and hopes the arts will continue to play a greater part in school curricula.
With his reputation cemented as one of the region’s most talented, professional, and consummately likeable veterans of stage and screen, his future as an actor seems assured. But no doubt this vibrant, humble and hard-working young actor, still in his thirties, will continue to hone his craft. “That’s extremely important to me,” he says. “You always want to keep striving for better.”