He ‘touched our lives in so many ways’
Tributes to Volier Johnson pour out at Deon Silvera’s 60th b-day bash
Actress Deon Silvera’s 60th birthday party turned out much bigger than originally conceptualised, not because there were more guests present than had been invited, but rather owing to the absence of one guest, theatre giant Volier Johnson. On the eve of the event, Johnson had eagerly anticipated “dancing [his] feet off;” instead the icon of theatre exited the stage permanently. The theatre world was shook.
Silvera had spoken to Johnson last Thursday, and he had asked her to put up some mangoes for him, which he promised to collect on Saturday, only for her to get a call on Friday night informing her of her friend’s sudden passing. Johnson, best known as ‘Maffie’, died at the Kingston Public Hospital on Friday after suffering what appeared to be a heart attack.
“If I didn’t have all of this planned for tonight already, I would have put it off,” she told The Gleaner of her birthday celebrations. “I have been crying all day. But tonight, we are going to celebrate Volier,” Silvera added, looking fabulous in blue, and rocking a pair of oversized glasses designed to hide her eyes, still swollen from too much crying.
The programme for the twin celebration had a special section dedicated to 'Tributes to Volier Johnson guided by Silton Townsend'. Notably, it wasn’t a time for tear-jerking reminiscences; actually, with the natural joie de vivre associated with theatre people, it was a section filled with much laughter.
Actress Angela Jarrett remembered Johnson as being “very mischievous”. Jarrett shared a story of her and Deon Silvera travelling to the country with Johnson in the dead of night and having an argument with him, which they happily thought they had won because Johnson had gone quiet. They got a rude awakening when they realised that he had detoured and had taken them to a cemetery.
“We inna Dovecot!” she exclaimed, still sounding spooked. “And Volier turn off the lights, and so we in Dovecot in the darkness!” she continued, to much laughter. “We love and miss you, and will remember the love that you’re brought not just to [the] theatre, but to the world.”
Johnson was remembered as the man who “jive Deon one night till she start bawl, and then him turn pon Terry”. He was the pork lover and the ‘Minister of Pork Patties’, and it was noted that with pork on the evening’s menu, it was just possible that Johnson was somewhere around.
But, it was his kindness that defined Volier Johnson. In paying tribute, prolific playwright Basil Dawkins started on a sombre note, “We do not, Lord, Thy purpose see, but all is well, if done by Thee. In the midst of life, we are in death. This epitomises that saying.” Dawkins spoke of Johnson’s “sacrificial kindness” and related how his colleague accompanied him to the country the night his mother passed.
“Just before the play that night, I got a call that my mother had died. I decided to drive to Westmoreland right after the show, and I told my colleagues what I was doing. Volier said I couldn’t go by myself, and he went with me. The following day he was up and down with me at the undertaker’s, making the arrangement,” Dawkins shared.
He also hailed Johnson as the person who would always iron his shirts while on tour. “No matter how me think my shirt iron good, Volier always send for it and iron it properly,” he recalled. “The whole team up deh, tell Charlie to give him a lead role,” Dawkins concluded.
In 1996 Johnson won the Actor Boy Award for Best Actor for the Dawkins play, Toy Boy.
Theatre veteran Lenford Salmon said it was “painful to talk about Volier,” and he, too, remembered the thespian’s kindness. “Volier epitomised someone who cared so much, sometimes to his own detriment. I met Volier in 1982, and in all those 40 years, I cannot remember Volier being angry. He always found a way to make light of it. Volier was my colleague in theatre, but he was also my friend,” the Jambiz principal stated.
Actor Blakka Ellis said he was “privileged to play alongside Volier in Claffy,” and he, too, recalled Johnson accompanying him on a journey when a relative died. Actress and producer Sherando Ferrell lifted her hat “to somebody who touched our lives in so many ways”.
With 50 years in theatre under his belt, Johnson had performed in pantomimes, including Tantaloo, Trash and Schoolers; Ginger Knight’s plays Higglers, Stepfather and Room For Rent; several Basil Dawkins productions, as well as the Oliver at Large series.
His larger-than-life characterisations earned him the popular names ‘Maffie’, ‘Claffy’ and ‘Fishead’.
Last Saturday, the Jamaica Film and Television Association, in paying tribute to one of the best in Jamaican theatre, noted that “he often gave us laughter, and always gave us heart; leaving a creative legacy and fond memories”.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness stated last Saturday, “This morning, I mourn with all Jamaicans as we heard the news of the passing of our very own legendary actor, Volier Johnson. Johnson played a significant role in Jamaica’s theatre community for more than 50 years and has added significant value to our culture. I extend deepest condolences to his family, loved ones, friends, and to the many people who loved and supported him, both in Jamaica and around the world.”
Culture Minister Olivia Grange wrote on Instagram, “My condolences to Volier Johnson’s family and the theatre community. Such a great loss. #SIP Volier.”
In 2013, Johnson received the Order of Distinction for his service to the Jamaican theatre.