Tuesday 26 March, 2019

Tributes pour in for 'quiet giant' Aston Cooke

Aston Cooke

Aston Cooke

Tributes have been pouring in for playwright Aston Cooke, who was found dead at his St Andrew apartment on Friday morning.

"I have lost a friend, not just a colleague, so his death has really shaken me up," Lenford Salmon, a senior advisor to Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports Minister Olivia Grange, told Loop News reporter Claude Mills. 

Salmon, who is a principal at Jambiz International Inc, which produces theatrical productions, met the playwright 36 years ago and maintained a great friendship over the years. 

"I spoke to him a week ago as we were seeking to get the Miss World competition to be staged in Jamaica. We were going to London to speak to them, a move orchestrated by Minister Olivia Grange. This is a tremendous loss for Jamaica, he was one of the island's foremost designers, not only of set design, but carnival costumes. He was a brilliant playwright, and he had a passion for the development of youths in theatre, and is a co-founder of Jamaica Youth Theatre (JYT). He was a product and a moving force of the schools drama festivals, and he put his life into maintaining it," Salmon said.

Cooke was one of the principals of Crown of Beauty Jamaica Limited, which owns the Miss Jamaica World franchise. He is the recipient of 10 national Actor Boy Awards for outstanding achievement in Jamaican theatre and an inductee to the Caribbean Hall of Fame for Arts and Culture. In 1985, Cooke was responsible for writing the first episodes of Oliver at Large for Jamaica's "King of Comedy" Oliver Samuels‚ which became Jamaica's most successful scripted television series to date.

Cooke has served as director of boards for several organisations, including Television Jamaica Limited, Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) and as Board Chairman of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) during 2013 and 2016. 

Grange expressed shock and sadness at the passing of the playwright.

“The news of Aston’s passing on this Jamaica Day is a blow for us all. But Aston would be proud of the glorious display and embrace of Jamaican culture in our schools and communities. Our culture was his life. He displayed a level of commitment to his culture that must be emulated and admired," the culture minister said.

“In the midst of our cultural celebrations today, we say farewell to a gentleman who has left us a proud legacy that echoes the makings of a cultural icon. We are sure the spirit and legacy of Aston Cooke will live on," she continued. “On behalf of the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport and the JCDC, I wish to express our deepest condolences and heartfelt sympathies to the family and friends of Aston Cooke. Be comforted in the fact that his legacy is untouchable and that he has given his best years to what he loved dearly, his culture.”

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the JCDC, Mexine Bissasor, described Cooke as a quiet giant who made a tremendous contribution to Jamaica’s culture and specifically, theatre,.

“His legacy is one that speaks to love, passion and honour. His deep love for the artform saw him being a part of all the veins of the heart of the industry; he has served the Commission three different times up to the day of his death," she said.

Meanwhile, executive director of JASL, Kandasi Levermore said Cooke's untimely death has left the organisation with a void it will never be able to fill. She said his work with JASL over the past two decades speaks volumes but it is his calm disposition and astuteness in creating that body of work which the JASL family will miss him for most.

“Aston’s passing is devastating for all of us and will leave us with a void for a very long time. The creative flair that he brought to the team is marked only by a man who has immersed himself in all aspects of life, and that he did well – in the arts which he loved dearly, both as an actor and playwright; pageantry; and as a committed servant of the marginalised," she said.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Aston Cooke attended All Saint's Primary School in Jones Town, Kingston, and later won a Common Entrance place to enter Wolmer's Boys' School. He began writing plays as a student at Wolmer's as an active participant in the Schools' Drama Festival of Jamaica. His first one-act play, Pickle‚ won several awards for Wolmer's Boys’ School in the Jamaica Secondary Schools Drama Festival.

Cooke is artistic director of the Jamaica Youth Theatre, a group he founded in 2004 that serves as the performing arm of the Schools' Drama Festival of Jamaica. He led the visionary campaign for the Jamaica Youth Theatre (JYT) to be selected from over 100 companies from 40 countries worldwide and eventually representing the nation at the 2010 "Contacting the World Youth Theatre Festival" in Manchester, England.

He is also a published writer, with his book, 'Country Duppy & Jonkanoo Jamboree'.

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