by Rhoma Spencer
I last visited with Valerie in April during the Bocas Lit Festival in Trinidad. I gathered up the courage to go see her at the St Joseph Medical Associates Hospital. Fortunately, it was that day she was being discharged, so I helped in packing up her stuff together with her son Chenier, wheeled her out the institution before paying the cashier and receiving all the paper work. Even then, I met with a Val that was very upbeat and we were both happy to see each other. We went home, she lay in bed and we chatted like long time. She was elated to finally give me my signed copy of her last book, ‘Art for the People- A Photo Memoir’. I collected my book and went my merry way, not knowing it was the last I would see of my dear friend of 27 years.
I first met Valerie Belgrave when she worked as the Set and Costume Designer for Nativity, A Trini Musical based on the Christmas Story with Music composed by Andre Tanker and Abbi Blackman and Directed by Gemma Allong Redman at the then Roxy Theatre in Woodbrook. In 1991 she wrote the play, Night of the Wolf about the 1990 coup set just outside the television station on Maraval Road. She shared the play with a couple of the theatre movers and shakers in Trinidad, including me and I was the only one who showed interest in it and encouraged her to produce it. We got together with her publishing company agent in Trinidad, Kenetia Lam Pow who served as the Executive Producer, Val and myself, and we formed a production company called Kevearr Productions- Kenetia, Valerie and Rhoma to produce the play.
The play debuted at the Little Carib Theatre, directed by Dani Jefferies and starred a cadre of Trinidad’s leading actors of the day including, Eunice Alleyne, Roseann Walker, Errol Fabien, Brian Honoré and a young Michael Cherrie. This was the beginning of my respect for Valerie Belgrave as the consummate artist. I mean she even designed her own home, no other like it on the Eastern Main Road in Petit Bourg. She composed the theme song of the play, sitting at her piano in the living room with Andre Tanker, she did the graphic design by hand, long before the age of computer graphic design, the set design and costumes. I was always amazed at the speed in which she works. You can give Valerie an edit at noon and before the day is done she has an amendment for you, sometimes within an hour or two.
I had come to understand her eccentricity and knew when to retire of her. I smile at the memory of hanging out in her living room and without a cue she would end that lime and have you hustling out the house because she ‘ready to sleep’. An avid Young and Restless viewer you never call Val between noon and 1pm. She was very strategic and I attest all this to being the artist she was. How does a mind like hers traverse between being a novelist, a batik artist, a visual artist, story book illustrator and then a playwright? Valerie Belgrave was in a league of her own and I since have not met any other like her.
Even when I was made aware of her radical student days at the Sir George William University in Montreal it was never a topic she would engage me in or discussed. It was a self – imposed amnesia, so I was equally shocked to see her talk about it in the recent documentary film, Ninth Floor produced by the National Film Board of Canada on an era of Canadian race history. Later, I would hear from the film maker the struggles they had to get her on film to speak about the events leading up to the lock in and computer lab fire at the University.
When she wrote her romance novel, Dance the Water, I was now living in Canada and I was beside myself when I invited her to do a Toronto book launch after I heard she was in Montreal for its launch. I single handily organized the launch with the assistance of Judith Lezama – Charles, hosted by the TT Consulate in Toronto during the tour of duty of Consular Vernetta Calvin-Smith.
In her last days, she was in a Hospice and wanted dearly to go home. The moment she was taken home, she died and even in death Valerie drew and designed her demise- to die at home. I cannot believe I would not see her again in this life but I would carry the memory of her in her art that I wear and is adorned on my living room wall, and in reading her last book that bears a note to me: ‘To my dear dear friend Rhoma we lived so many lives together. Love and Best wishes, Valerie Belgrave.’
There is a sower in the sky Who sows the seeds of stars That sower’s name is death my love Who sows that we must die And if I die before you love The harvest that I reap Will be the memory of our love Through everlasting sleep Through everlasting sleep my love Through everlasting sleep…. Derek Walcott from the play Joker of Seville.