Richardo Keens-Douglas (1953-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1953 in Grenada, West Indies; Education: Attended Presentation Brothers College, Grenada, and Dawson College School of Theatre; studied at Alvin Ailey School. Hobbies and other interests: Personal fitness.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Annick Press, 15 Patricia Ave., Toronto, Ontario M2M 1H9, Canada.
Actor, writer, and storyteller. Actor on stage with Stratford Shakespearean Company, Stratford, Ontario, Canada, and elsewhere, appearing in productions including Souvenirs, Two Brothers, Ain't Misbehavin', Threepenny Opera, Dames at Sea, Twelfth Night, The Unseen Hand, and (title role) Pinocchio. Actor in films, including Zero Patience, Adderly, and Fields of Endless Days. Actor in television, including Cocoa Roots (series), Grenada Cablevision, 2004. Host, Cloud 9, CBC-Radio. Movement teacher, Children's Theatre, 1974-77.
Canadian Actor's Equity, Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists.
Nominated for Dora Mavor Moore Award for best actor, 1985, for The Obeah Man; Storytelling World Honor Award for tellable stories for ages four through nine, 1995, for La Diablesse and the Baby; Silver Birch Award finalist, 1996, for Freedom Child of the Sea; Gemini Award nomination for best host in an arts program, for Sunday Arts Entertainment.
The Obeah Man (musical), produced in Canada, 1985.
Caribbean Cindy (radio play), broadcast on Morningside, CBC-Radio, 1992.
The Nutmeg Princess (also see below), illustrated by Annouchka Gravel Glouchko, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
La Diablesse and the Baby, illustrated by Marie Lafrance, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Freedom Child of the Sea, illustrated by Julia Gukova, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Grandpa's Visit, illustrated by Frances Clancy, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
The Miss Meow Pageant, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
Mama God, Papa God: A Caribbean Tale, illustrated by Stefan Czernecki, Crocodile Books (New York, NY), 1999.
The Nutmeg Princess (musical; adapted from his book; produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1999), Playwrights Canada Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
The Trial of the Stone, illustrated by Stéphane Jurisch, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
Anancy and the Haunted House, illustrated by Stéphane Jurisch, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Tales from the Isle of Spice: A Collection of New Caribbean Folktales, illustrated by Sylvie Bourbonnière, Annick Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2004.
Work included in anthologies, including Take Five, Blizzard Press, and Fiery Spirits, HarperCollins (New York, NY). Author of plays Once upon an Island and Tell a Tale, produced on CBC-Radio. Author's performance of The Nutmeg Princess was recorded on audio cassette. Several of Keens-Douglas's books for children have been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.
Richardo Keens-Douglas is an internationally known storyteller who has written a number of books for young children that explore the African-Caribbean experience. He has also published several short stories for adult readers, has served as host of the CBC-Radio program Cloud 9, and has appeared as an actor in roles on stage as well as in films and television productions. Among Keens-Douglas's most well-known books are The Nutmeg Princess, La Diablesse and the Baby, and Mama God, Papa God.
Keens-Douglas, who was born and has since returned to live on the island of Grenada in 1953, has worked as a performer in various capacities—as an actor, a radio personality, and as a storyteller. His popularity with both children and adult audiences has made him a welcome performer not only in Canada, where he made his home until 2003, but in other parts of the world as well. His hosting role on the Canada-wide broadcast of Cloud 9 was a first for a performer of color in that country. He has also served as host of CBC-TV's Sunday Arts Entertainment, a variety program that earned Keens-Douglas a Gemini Award nomination. In addition to being an author and performer, he also conducts a seminar titled "Creative Thinking through Storytelling and Self-Esteem" at workshops in Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean, and is an oft-requested inspirational speaker.
Keens-Douglas's books for children echo the beliefs he expresses through his storytelling performances: self-acceptance and learning to feel pride in being who you are. By relating tales of life in the Caribbean and Canada, he teaches children about the importance of cultural heritage, encourages creative thinking, and broadens young imaginations. Much of his energy and positivism Keens-Douglas credits to his parents. "They taught me to believe in myself and be who I want to be," he explained. "It is because of the strength I got as a child that I can express myself in so many ways."
Keens-Douglas's book The Nutmeg Princess grew out of his experience with a young black student who asked the storyteller if he knew any stories about a black princess. Keens-Douglas realized that the child wanted to be able to picture herself in a story, and her wish inspired his first book. The Nutmeg Princess tells the story of children Aglo and Petal, who befriend Petite Mama, a tiny old woman who grows nutmeg in the mountains of Spice Island and who many islanders decry as a witch. Petite Mama tells the children about the Nutmeg Princess, a magical woman who only appears to those who have proven themselves worthy. After exhibiting acts of trust and selflessness, the children gain the ability to see the princess, who rises in the center of a bottomless lake near Petite Mama's home. Judy Coulman praised the book in Canadian Materials, writing that "The pure pleasure of fantasy, good and evil, greed in conflict with generosity, and moral values rewarded are all here in a rich tapestry."
The award-winning La Diablesse and the Baby is drawn from the storytelling tradition of the author's native West Indies, while Freedom Child of the Sea addresses the topic of slavery from a child's perspective. Recognized only by her hoofed foot, La Diablesse is a beautiful female devil who wanders the islands in search of small children to steal. Attempting to snatch a small infant from the baby's grandmother by disguising herself as a beautiful stranger seeking shelter on a stormy night, La Diablesse finds she has met her match when Granny, becoming suspicious due to her houseguest's insistence upon holding the baby, manages to outwit the spirit.
Despite its serious subject—slavery—Keens-Douglas's Freedom Child of the Sea is "a magical tale fully imagined, told with subtlety, nuance and power," according to Rhea Tregebov in Books in Canada. A powerful work containing fantasy and metaphor, the story follows a swimmer who almost drowns after being approached by a hungry shark. Suddenly, he finds that a young boy is swimming beside him; the boy, whose slight body is covered with scars and cuts, saves the swimmer but then vanishes. An old man on the beach explains to the swimmer that the boy, known as Freedom Child of the Sea, "bears all the pain and bondage of the human race." The boy is compelled to live alone in the sea with his injuries; only when mankind ceases to enslave and harm each other will he be allowed to rise, healed, from the sea. Freedom Child of the Sea "challenges us to overcome our own cowardice, our adult need to make childhood a safe place even if that safety involves hiding from the truth," contended Janet McNaughton in Quill & Quire, the critic adding: "We need books like this to keep us honest."
School Librarian critic Vivienne Grant called Keens-Douglas's Grandpa's Visit "a sensitive and poignant tale" illustrating the value of the simple pleasures of family and togetherness. Jeremy is part of a successful middle-class black family who have accumulated an abundance of material possessions. When grandpa arrives for a visit, the gift he brings to Jeremy is a simple multi-colored ball. Jeremy isn't impressed; compared to his computer or television or other possessions, "it's just a ball," as he says. But when the power goes out one night, rendering all the electronic appliances and other gadgets useless, Jeremy and his family amuse themselves by playing with Grandpa's gift. Playing together with the simple toy helps them pass the hours and realize the deeper benefits of being together as a family.
Henrietta's cat, Sparrow, is not the most beautiful cat there ever was—in fact, Sparrow is just plain ugly, with a multicolored mess of a coat and a generally mangy look. But in The Miss Meow Pageant, Sparrow gets the chance to show that looks do not matter to someone with the confidence and daring to strut their stuff. Henrietta thinks Sparrow is a "liberated" tom cat, but she and her friend Len decide to enter him in the Miss Meow beauty pageant anyway. The two work at training the scruffy kitty to prance like a beauty pageant contestant, and finally succeed with the help of inspiring calypso music. On the day of the pageant, an array of gorgeous, talented cats parade across the stage to enthusiastic rounds of applause. When Sparrow's turn comes, he is met with jeers and laughter, but "Once Sparrow hits the pageant stage and begins dancing to calypso music, he becomes almost magically beautiful, and the audience's shouts of laughter turn to cheers," wrote a reviewer in Quill & Quire. The Miss Meow Pageant "highlights Keens-Douglas's oral style of narrative and his knack for capturing accents, rhythms, and dialects in dialogue," the Quill & Quire reviewer remarked.
Praising the author's "deft touch," a reviewer in Resource Links praised Keens-Douglas's retelling of a West Indian creation myth in Mama God, Papa God: A Caribbean Tale. Papa God, tired of living in darkness, creates light, and after seeing his beautiful Mama God for the first time, decides to make the world as a gift for her. Then Mama God and Papa God make people to populate the new world, each different from the other, all speaking different languages, but all part of the world the two gods brought forth. Marilyn Iarusso, writing in School Library Journal, called the book "sweet and up-beat," and concluded it is "a joyous celebration of diversity to read aloud to children." A Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed Mama God, Papa God "a strikingly different and exuberant interpretation of how the world began."
Reflecting the folk stories of other cultures, Keens-Douglas's Anancy and the Haunted House is based on the tales of the trickster spider Anancy—sometimes spelled Anansi—that originated with the Ashanti people of Ghana. Anancy is much-admired as a hero among the spiders because his adventures are always the most amazing. The boastful Anancy has traveled the world and seen it all, at least according to him. When the littler spiders host a party on the beach, they invite Anancy as their guest. The party goes on, even though it is near a local haunted house, where rocks fall mysteriously on the roof and every night at midnight an enormous rooster dances on a table inside. Unlike the other spiders, Anancy declares he is not afraid of the haunted house, and offers to go inside the house and show the rooster a few new dance steps. True to his word, he heads into the creepy, old house, but once inside his bravery begins to crumble.
"As a first-class storyteller, the author knows exactly how to produce a written text that mimics the oral tradition," wrote Val Nielsen, reviewing Anancy and the Haunted House for Canadian Materials Online. "The unexpected conclusion of the adventure will surprise and please young listeners," Nielsen added, "although more widely-read Anansi fans may find the ending a little too easy on that arrogant arachnid." Jeffrey Canton, writing in Quill & Quire, also noted that "Anancy doesn't rely on his own resourcefulness to get out of a tight jam," which is uncharacteristic for the folk character Keens-Douglas based the story on. However, Canton commented that the author "managed to capture in his text the subtle nuances of the oral tradition that these stories come from."
The Trial of the Stone is also a retelling of a folktale, this one popular throughout Asia and South America. Young Matt, on his way to visit his grandfather, stops outside a small village to rest for the night. He hides the few coins he possesses under a large stone, but when he awakens in the morning the coins are gone, though the stone is still there. Matt's cries of dismay alert the local villagers. After hearing Matt's sad story, the village chief—wiser than he may at first appear—puts the stone on trial for the theft of the coins. The chief asks question after question—Who were your parents? What village are you from? What were you doing on the side of the road?—but the stone sits in silence. The villages become more and more amused at the chief's seemingly insane attempts to get answers from a big rock. When the crowd is no longer able to control itself and bursts out into gleeful laughter, the chief declares the entire crowd to be in contempt of court. He fines them one penny each and gives the coins to Matt. In the process of the trial, the real thief of Matt's money is tricked into revealing himself, and is suitably punished by the story's end. Calling the story "off-beat," a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that The Trial of the Stone "should prove an effective tickler of funny bones, while it also appeases the target age group's fiercely held sense of justice," while in Resource Links a reviewer praised "The skill of the storyteller" and "a text that is sparing and clean." Alison Mews, reviewing the book for Canadian Materials Online, called the book "a worthy addition to any folktale collection" and stated that "this comic collaboration" between Keens-Douglas and illustrator Stéphane Jurisch "begs to be shared with children, whose inherent sense of justice will be deliciously vindicated."
Part of Keens-Douglas's work as a storyteller and author has been to increase the visibility of people of color in literature and the arts. During much of his career as an actor he has created his own roles and written his own scripts, providing for himself a freedom not otherwise available as a black actor in the late twentieth century. "If I had sat and believed what people thought of me, or waited for someone to give me work, I would still be doing just that—waiting," he explained in an interview for Nou Online. "That's why I tell artists don't sit by the phone waiting for it to ring, get up and write, create your own work." For young artists, particularly, Keens-Douglas related the following advice: "Work on your craft. It's not so much what you do when you get the job, it's what you do between jobs. You always have to be prepared. You must be ready when opportunity knocks. You can't wait for when you get an acting job, to run out and start working on your voice, or diction and things like that. You have to be ready for that break, because you never know when it will come."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Books in Canada, October, 1992, p. 52; November, 1994, p. 57; May, 1995, Rhea Tregebov, review of Freedom Child of the Sea, p. 49.
Canadian Children's Literature, Volume 74, 1994, pp. 62-63; spring, 1999, Lissa Paul, review of Grandpa's Visit, p. 66.
Canadian Materials, October, 1992, Judy Coulman, review of The Nutmeg Princess, p. 263.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1999, review of Mama God, Papa God: A Caribbean Tale, p. 541.
Maclean's, November 30, 1998, review of The Miss Meow Pageant, p. 92.
Publishers Weekly, October 23, 2000, review of The Trial of the Stone, p. 74.
Quill & Quire, August, 1992, p. 26; October, 1994, pp. 39-40; February, 1995, Janet McNaughton, review of Freedom Child of the Sea, p. 38; October, 1998, review of The Miss Meow Pageant, p. 42; February, 1999, Bridget Donald, "Dreamer: Grenadian-born Writer Richardo Keens-Douglas Writes So Kids Will Believe in Themselves," p. 44; June, 1999, review of Mama God, Papa God, p. 63; November, 2000, review of The Trial of the Stone, p. 37; November, 2002, Jeffrey Canton, review of Anancy and the Haunted House, p. 41.
Resource Links, April, 1999, review of The Miss Meow Pageant, p. 3; October, 1999, review of Mama God, Papa God, p. 6; February, 2001, review of The Trial of the Stone, p. 4; December, 2002, Stephanie Olson, review of Anancy and the Haunted House, p. 9.
School Librarian, autumn, 1998, Vivienne Grant, review of Grandpa's Visit, p. 131.
School Library Journal, January, 1999, Jane Marino, review of The Miss Meow Pageant, pp. 95-96; July, 1999, Marilyn Iarusso, review of Mama God, Papa God, p. 86; November, 2002, Susan Pine, review of Anancy and the Haunted House, p. 128.
Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1993, pp. 82-83.
Annick Press Web site, http://www.annickpress.com/ (October 1, 2003), "Richardo Keens-Douglas."
Canadian Materials Online, http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/ (May 11, 2001), Alison Mews, review of The Trial of the Stone; (September 20, 2002) Val Nielsen, review of Anancy and the Haunted House.
January Magazine Online, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (January, 2001), Monica Stark, review of The Trial of the Stone.
Nou Online, http://www.nou-caribbean.com/ (October 1, 2003), interview with Keens-Douglas.*
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