Sidney Poitier – A Memory and A Cautionary Tale

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Dear Editor

I remember in the late seventies Sydney Poitier was calling my husband to refresh his memory of the times they shared as young actors in New York years before. Sidney was working on his book –This Life– in which he recounted episodes of his life growing up in the Bahamas and the beginnings of his acting career in New York; his marriages, relationships, and filmmaking experiences. Julian Mayfield had recently returned to the USA after a tour in Guyana as Senior Special Political Adviser to President Forbes Burnham.

The two actors were connected by a friendship as well as a professional relationship. Before Sidney Poitier left for Hollywood to star in his first movie No Way Out, he played the junior lead of Absalom in the play Lost in the Stars…a musical with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Kurt Weill…based on the South African novel: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Julian Mayfield, his understudy, stepped into that role….

I never met Sidney in person but spoke with him many times on the telephone. He had always been on the top of my list of favourite movie actors but I never dreamt of meeting him in person. Yet – not being starstruck by nature – when the opportunity presented itself, I deferred….

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I’d just arrived in the Bahamas to meet Julian who had preceded me from Guyana, having left prematurely when it became clear that his relationship with President Burnham was on the rocks. In those euphoric times when Guyana was set to Feed, House and Clothe the Nation by 1976 – The President’s Adviser had concluded and announced that “Guyana is Facing a Crisis”. Around that same time Julian Mayfield sent President Burnham a copy of his unpublished Burnham of Guyana manuscript. Neither Mayfield’s prediction of doom nor the content of his manuscript found favour with Forbes Burnham; in the cold silence that followed it was obviously time for his Adviser to leave. And unasked, that is what he did; Julian Mayfield left Guyana – disillusioned…sad…tired.

Consequently, my husband sounded less than enthusiastic when– on my arrival in the Bahamas–he said “Sidney’s on the island…I can take you over there to meet him; but I’m certain we’ll have to wade through a whole lot of hangers-on.” He sounded truly despondent. Thus –compassionately– I opted to meet Sidney Poitier “some other time” – but sadly never did. I would have loved to tell this esteemed icon of Black consciousness and pride – in person – how much I admired his remarkable talent; how impressed I’ve been over the years with his insistence on elevating the roles played in Hollywood movies by Black people; to express my delight at Mr Tibbs’ reciprocal response in the film In the Heat of the Night when Mr Endicott slapped him.

I never met Sidney, but Julian – the essential raconteur – had regaled me with recollections of their escapades; how sometimes the struggling young actors had to sell their blood to the Red Cross –mainly to survive in those discriminatory times in New York…stories about the activity surrounding Sidney’s establishment of his “steaks-and-chips joint” and much more too private, too personal to be revealed.

Sidney Poitier visited Guyana as Honorary Consul of the Bahamas years after Julian Mayfield had joined the ancestors and my efforts to make direct contact with him were soundly rebuffedby the Pegasus Hotel receptionists; presumably –they supposed I was a “hangers-on.” However – it seems my messages were passed on. Early one morning an excited Earl John (my dear friend whose phone number I’d been using to receive messages) turned up at my home to say that Sidney Poitier had called and leftthe number to contact him in the USA.

Of all the conversations I’ve had with my movie idol, the last two stand out significantly as cautionary tales. The first one was after I’d lost touch with Sidney and was reconnecting through the diligence of an assistant with more facility for online connection than I can boast. When asked – “what can I do for you Joan?”I responded immediately: “We Need your endorsement for our project, Sydney” .Then – as reward for finding Sidney Poitier –I turned the phone over to my assistant to explain details of our mission to establish a sanctuary for Creative Artists on my farm at Yukuriba Falls on the Essequibo River in Guyana.

In retrospect – that was a big mistake. My starstruck assistant launched into effusive expressions of love for the man and his art – especially To Sir With Love; he wanted to know every detail of the making of that movie…I heard nary a word about my Yukuriba Creative Farming Community project. I should’ve been gross…snatched the phone from my assistant…curbed his excesses…focused on the subject; but hindsight is 20/20. When the phone was finally returned to me, Sidney Poitier promised to be in touch.

The last time I spoke with Sidney Poitier on the phone was with an erstwhile friend whom I’d considered to be a worthy collaborator in pursuit of my dream to establish The Yukuriba Farming Creative Community on my 357-acre farm at Yukuriba Heights in the Guyana Rainforest…last of Pristine Amazonia; with a Philip More Maroon Sculptor Trail celebrating Maroons of the Americas and an Academy of African Spiritually as well as the Roy Bowen Rainforest Research Institute et al….initiatives I’m certain Sidney Poitier would have applauded had I the chance to picture them for him. After that occasion his family – quite understandably – became protective…Sidney Poitier was no longer so accessible to me.

Dear Sidney – you must know by now that I had not become a hangers-on, trying to touch you for some money. I begged…begged her not to ask you for money but she insisted…However, I’m happy that you know the truth now, you’re united with Julian on that mountaintop. I also now know what the poet meant when it was writ: “where gods still brood on thrones of rock”;therewith Julian you are hearing for the first time the words he’d said to me after I returned to his room in the hospital when you called. He handed me the phone “…here – go outside Joan – talk to Sidney.”Ileft the room to speak with you about what he’d meant when he said from his transitioning to the ancestors bed– “Sidney, send Joan three thousand dollars” and you could not understand – why…?

When I walked back into the room Julian said with such passion I could never forget his words –“Listen to me Sweetheart –take care of the Business of the Arts first…hear me – the business – first”; and would you believe that I still see him, hear him intoning…with that cautioning finger pointing at me?

So dear Sidney, I’m happy that you now know that last time we communicated was in pursuit of “the business of the Arts”;not your friend’s widow placing a price on a priceless concept when your name – the name Sidney Poitier – would have been enough.

Di Strogl Gainaan! (A Luta Continua!)
Regards
Joan Cambridge.



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