James Catalyn died last week and The Bahamas is all the poorer for it. In the ensuing days his name was everywhere. There were tributes, letters and tears. I interviewed James at his home on Bar 20 Corner one afternoon many year ago. It was for this blog. This was around 2010, 2011. I lost the interview. It’s my second regret about this blog.
In the few short hours that I spent with him, I knew he was different from the ordinary person. Everyone who knew James, knew his of his candor and frankness. I met a kind man who was genuinely curious about me and why I was so curious about him. His home was old fashioned. It reminded me a lot of my grandmother’s home in Long Island. His backyard was beautiful. Filled with flowers and shade, it was neatly tucked away, hidden from the outside world. James gave me a few copies of his plays, signed them and told me he was deeply distressed that his home was recently broken into and his computer, with gigabytes of plays, was stolen. That was the one time I met him, a vignette into the man. My editor called me last week and asked if I would write our obituary article about James. “Only you can do it,” she said. I will share it in full.
Published in The Nassau Guardian on August 20, 2018.
James Catalyn dies at 78
James Julius Catalyn, a legend in Bahamian theater, died in hospital on New Providence on Saturday after fighting a long illness.
He was 78.
His nephew, Kirk Catalano, said he was rushed to hospital on Friday night.
“He was opinionated and an alpha male par excellence to the bitter end,” said Catalano, noting that those who knew Catalyn best would appreciate the description.
Catalyn was surrounded by family and friends when he died.
He is best known for his theater troupe, James Catalyn and Friends, which he founded in December 1979. His annual Summer Madness production, a collection of satirical skits, has thrilled Bahamians for decades.
He was a playwright, poet, actor and father.
Those closest to Catalyn remembered him as no-nonsense, upfront “stickler for time”; he was a church-going man, perfectionist and a good friend.
He was a staunch advocate of the Bahamian dialect, which he called “Bahamianese”.
Catalyn was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2016.
Former Director of Culture Dr. Nicolette Bethel, a member of Bahamian theater company Ringplay Productions, remembered Catalyn as one of the most important figures in the Bahamian theater landscape.
“We’ve lost one of the most outspoken and fearless critics of all things Bahamian,” Bethel said yesterday.
“If James saw something going wrong, he did not hesitate to say it. He criticized the PLP (Progressive Liberal Party) roundly in the ‘70s and ‘80s and became a PLP stalwart councillor at the end of his life, but he never stopped criticizing whomever, FNM or PLP. If he saw something wrong, he would tell you. He wasn’t polite about it.”
Bethel noted that Catalyn’s love for Bahamian dialect was unmatched.
“His greatest mark in culture was fighting for Bahamian dialect and defending Bahamian dialect and the right and the necessity of speaking it,” she said.
“That is, without question, his greatest contribution. Everything else he did was an offshoot of that.”
Bethel noted that work on the James Catalyn Amphitheater, to be built on the grounds of the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts, is underway.
“Groundbreaking for that is scheduled to take place at the end of this month,” Bethel said.
“It’s just a great shame, and everybody is just disappointed and devastated that he is not going to be there to see the groundbreaking.”
Claudette “Cookie” Allens was one of the original members of James Catalyn and Friends in 1979. She said he was an “icon, a legend and a straight talker”.
“James was meticulous, precise and a workaholic,” Allens said.
“He was a Bahamian at heart, pure Bahamian.”
Leslie Tynes, a member of James Catalyn and Friends, said she grew up watching his performances on ZNS and later at the Dundas.
She recalled seeing a friend of hers on stage and thought, “Hey, I can do that.”
Suddenly she found herself on stage and learning from Catalyn.
“He had this thing that he used to say, ‘Speak Bahamianese; only speak English when necessary’. I used to get a kick out of that. He taught me a lot,” she said.
She described Catalyn and his troupe as her second family.
“James Catalyn and Friends felt like family,” she said.
“We would travel and take the shows to the Family Islands. It was like you were traveling with your family.”
Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis said Catalyn had “a biting wit which he took to the stage helping us to laugh at ourselves”.
“God rest you, James. You were a patriot,” said Davis in a statement. “You made the whole Bahamas laugh. Now it is time to bring that laughter to heaven. May the love of our country take you up to paradise.”
Catalyn is survived by his son, Randon Scott Catalano (the original family name); his brother, Peter Catalano; numerous nieces and nephews and three grandchildren.