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Trevor Rhone dies at 69; Caribbean playwright, screenwriter

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Trevor Rhone, a leading Caribbean playwright and screenwriter who co-wrote the 1972 film "The Harder They Come," which helped introduce reggae music and urban Jamaican culture to international audiences, died Sept. 15 at a hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, after a heart attack. He was 69.

"The Harder They Come" starred reggae performer Jimmy Cliff as an aspiring singer who becomes a hero to the poor after killing a police officer. The film, co-written with director Perry Henzell, was drawn from the story of a Jamaican criminal killed by police in 1948.

For many American audience members, the film was their first view of urban Jamaican life and culture. It featured reggae by Cliff, who sings the title song; Toots and the Maytals; Desmond Dekker and others, and remained an art house staple in the United States for several years after its initial release. It also broke Jamaica's box office records, but did not enrich Rhone.

"It made money for somebody, I would imagine," he told the New York Times. "Not me."

Rhone's plays often used satire to comment on the social conflicts in Jamaica after its independence from England in 1962.

His first major work, "Smile Orange" (1971), showed the tourism trade through the eyes of underpaid hotel clerks and waiters at a Montego Bay resort. Although a comedy, the play conveys a bleak message that the exploitative nature of the tourism trade has led to racial self-hatred and malicious behavior. In one memorable scene, a clerk uses his spit and a discarded banana peel to polish the silverware.

Rhone directed a 1976 film version of "Smile Orange" that received friendly reviews.

Meanwhile, he continued to write a series of popular plays, including "School's Out" (1974), based on his experiences as a teacher in the 1960s. It concerned a missionary school whose academic standards have declined dramatically. An overflowing toilet that no one will fix and an absent headmaster -- represented by an unopened office door -- were viewed as symbols of national dysfunction.

Writing in the Times of London, theater critic Irving Wardle praised Rhone's "gifts for loving characterization and powers of story-telling."

A farmer's son, Trevor Dave Rhone was born March 24, 1940, in Kingston and grew up in a rural village, Bellas Gate, which would later inspire his autobiographical play "Bellas Gate Boy."

In 1959, he left for England to attend drama school at Rose Bruford College in Kent and returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s when he grew frustrated with the low-quality parts offered to black actors.

"As a drama school student in London, I had visions of myself as a great tragedian," he told the reference guide Contemporary Authors. "I quickly learnt, however, that classic roles available to black actors were few and far between. And such parts as there were, were invariably written by white authors with little understanding of the black experience.

"My first acting jobs in the professional theater saw me perpetuating negative and stereotyped images of blacks," he added. "My first effort at writing a play was an attempt to find something worthwhile to perform."

His plays included "Old Story Time" (1979), which follows a Jamaican family on its 40-year climb through upward mobility, and "Two Can Play" (1983), a farce about a Jamaican man whose wife has her feminist consciousness raised after her visit to the United States.

In 1974, Rhone married Camilla King. His survivors include his wife, three children and a grandchild, according to the Jamaica Observer newspaper.

McArdle writes for the Washington Post.

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