R.I.P: Geoffrey Holder, “The Personification of Caribbean Man,” 1930-2014

October 7, 2014

Words by Tishanna Williams

It’s probably fitting that, while Geoffrey Holder was taking his last breath on Sunday October 5th, that we, the actors of Proscenium Theatre Company in his homeland of Trinidad, were calling it a night after rehearsing for our upcoming presentation of The Wiz.

I had only recently learned that Holder was the director of the original, 1975 Broadway production of the famed play-turned-movie. I felt so proud to know we were recreating a work that had not only been done by one of our own โ€” so it was, in fact, originally โ€˜oursโ€™ โ€” but had also made Holder the first black man to receive the Tony Award for Best Costume and Best Direction. As it turns out, our director Mervyn De Goeas, considered by many to be one of the Caribbean’s finest theater directors, had the honor of interacting with this legend. It was so heady that my role as the lead, Dorothy, could only have felt like a bigger honor if Holder had cast me himself. โ€œIt just got kinda strange โ€” now we kind of have a lot more pressure on us to do the piece justice,โ€ Mervyn said on hearing of Holder’s passing. โ€œHe took our style to the Broadway stage and we are all the better for it.โ€

When people speak of Geoffrey Holder, it’s generally with regards to his height, deep bass voice and one of his long list of achievements, all accomplished with a distinctly Caribbean flair and accent. Everyone seems to know Holder for a different reason. Some remember him as Baron Semedi, one of the greatest James Bond villains, from Live and Let Die. Others recall his epic series of 7UP commercials, or his role as Punjab in the loveable Annie.

Still, different people may think of him as an artist โ€” his paintings, photographs, and sculptures have hung in the houses of famous persons including Lena Horne and such institutions as the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Another sect may think of him as a sought-after dancer, choreographer and theatrical director. But no matter the impression he left, one thing was sure. Geoffrey Holder is a man who stood the test of time: A pioneer of the arts who helped define what it meant to be black, Caribbean and proud at a time when many had no idea those words belonged together.

As an artist, choreographer, author, director, designer, mentor and international icon, he is the the personification of Caribbean Man and international legend. While his death has been a shock to manyย  around the world, his last moments will astound only those who did not know him. According to a Facebook post by his son, Leo, his last words were a compilation of โ€œArms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4โ€ฆโ€ What does this tell us? That he left this world last Sunday the same way he lived his life, with flair, a command of his audience and choreographing one last number. According to De Goeas;

โ€œGeoffrey Holder was a true inspiration to my generation, and generations beyond. A true Renaissance Man โ€” Artist, Dancer, Director, Choreographer, Costumer โ€” he lived his life to the fullest. If there’s one thing all Trinidadian and Tobagonian artists should take from him is this – We are capable of taking on the world…and conquering it!โ€

Today LargeUp honors the life and Legacy of Geoffrey Holder, and leaves you with some lesser known facts of this great man.