When the film The Harder They Come premiered at the Carib Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1972, it became an instant local sensation. Starring reggae icon Jimmy Cliff as Ivan Martin, a poor man from the countryside who travels to Kingston with the dream of becoming a musician, the film resonated for its relatable portrayal of life in Jamaica. Not only was it filmed in real locations across Kingston, but it also incorporated Jamaican Patois, a language rarely spoken in movies. For many, it was the first time they’d seen their country and people authentically represented onscreen.
In 1973, the film made its international debut and was widely attributed for introducing reggae to the Western world. Now, just in time for its 50th anniversary, the movie has been reimagined as an electrifying musical that adds thoughtful depth and nuance to the narrative and its stewards while celebrating the reggae tradition in a whole new light.
Running through April 9 at New York’s Public Theater, The Harder They Come is co-directed by Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, with a script adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–awarded production Topdog/Underdog just finished its revival run on Broadway this January).
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Like the movie, the musical follows Ivan, played by Natey Jones, who has dreams of making it big as a reggae star upon returning to his native Kingston. Failing to quickly score a record deal, Ivan takes up a number of jobs, including working at a church for room and board, where he meets the love of his life, Elsa (Meecah), and later, selling cannabis. But his success at all his endeavors is thwarted by an unfair system that’s infected with corruption and rife with tyrannical gatekeepers.
Eventually, Ivan is able to cut a record, but the powerful producer who holds sway over every radio station on the island refuses to play it until Ivan signs an exploitative deal. Ultimately, Ivan decides to fight back against his oppressors, calling out their greed and depravity and becoming an outlaw-turned-hero in the process. The people of Jamaica unite behind him, and his song becomes a rallying cry for justice that takes over the airwaves for decades to come.
While it honors the film’s original story, the play shines for its investment in character development. Each person we meet has a richly wrought backstory and, throughout the production, is faced with difficult choices that often result in heartbreaking resolutions. As explained by Parks, the production is meant to force audiences to work through emotional highs and lows in real time. “We’re not encouraged anymore to work through feelings. We’re encouraged to pretend they’re not there,” she says. “If we just make everything happy, then we lose one of our great human superpowers, which is to deal.”
Here, Harper’s BAZAAR speaks with the playwright about her foray into writing reggae songs, the freedom of working with The Public Theater, and why we are all Ivan.
I know that you’ve been working to bring this project to life for almost 10 years. Tell me about why you wanted to help adapt the movie into a play and what initially drew you to the project.
Justine Henzell, who is the daughter of Perry Henzell, the film’s director, is really the keeper of the flame. The movie is one of the great prides of Jamaican culture and is much loved by people all over the world, but especially by folks from Jamaica and those who love great music. It’s got the best soundtrack ever, so I think she just felt like it would make a cool musical. And when they approached me, I watched the film and I was like, “Well, my people are beautiful.”
That’s the one thing I came away with after watching the film. My people are beautiful, and I really wanted to show that love that I felt specifically for the Jamaican people, but also just for the people of the African diaspora and artists, because I really identified with Ivan. He’s an artist, and he comes to town wanting to make a record. I really worked to strengthen that aspect of the story in our play.
It’s a story about so many things at once, and it feels so fast-paced because so much happens. Was that intentional? Did you pace it more quickly than the movie?
It’s a very intense story, and I would say there’s a lot less story in the film. The film was made in the ’70s, and there’s a lot more running around with guns, and that’s cool. But there’s less what we’d call traditional character development in the film, and that’s what I’m very interested in. In a way, the musical is slower paced than the film, because we stop to hear from more people.
But Ivan’s life when he arrives in Kingston—you get that frenetic feeling. Ivan is a young man from the country, he comes to the city to not only check up on his mom, who is living in reduced circumstances, but he also comes because he wants to make a record. I didn’t grow up in New York City, and I remember the first time I came to the city—whoa, it’s fast-paced. Our hearts are beating like Ivan’s heart. So if the musical seems fast-paced, that’s because we are with Ivan.
Overarchingly, the play is about a man with a dream who, in pursuing it, realizes that the system is rigged and run by tyrants on multiple levels. Do you feel like that constant conflict is partly what makes this story so timeless and resonates so well with so many audiences?
Yeah, the struggle is centered around Ivan and his desire to succeed. As he says, “Explain to me why I’m wrong when all I want is to hear my song.” This young man wants to hear his song and have it become part of the human record. I think a lot of people can connect with that. A lot of people these days want to hear their song and are being denied that opportunity, even though they’re working really hard. I think a lot of people I know, no matter if they’re just starting out in the art business or they’re just starting out in life, work incredibly hard and just are not seeing the American Dream come to fruition. There are a lot of folks struggling. To me, it’s really a story about that: the struggle that it takes to live life.
Definitely. Ivan’s own story ends in a beautifully devastating way, but his song is ultimately played on the radio and becomes a sort of anthem for the Jamaican people. What do you feel like audiences can take away from the resolution of Ivan’s story?
Well, before the last song in the show, Ivan says, “I told you they can’t kill my song.” And he believes that. Everyone in the show knows their place except Ivan. He dreams of something bigger, and that’s his crime. But he eventually does achieve that stardom that he dreamt of in act one. People of African descent, we have these phrases. We say, “Keep on keeping on.” We say, “Ain’t nobody going to turn me around.” And there’s this forward movement in spite of the difficulty. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to make things better for ourselves and each other. I’m not saying just put up with the bullshit. Ivan certainly doesn’t. He fights, he takes a stand against the man, but he also continues to move in the direction of the things that he thinks are good and just.
Absolutely, his perseverance is so key. And then, he ends up forever living on through his music.
He does. He’s the hero. He will go on and on. And he does. I think it’s beautiful, and that’s the best that could happen given the circumstances. We didn’t try to sugarcoat it; it didn’t turn into one of those everything’s-fine-and-happy stories because we live in this world. And I think that’s why people really love it, because we told the truth of the story. People need to be told what’s really going on, and then we can digest it, and then we can grapple with it. So, yes, it encourages us to deal with both difficult and joyous feelings, because there are also a lot of jokes in the show; there’s a lot of fun.
Absolutely, the music is so great, and when the film came out, it was the first time that Western audiences had been exposed to reggae on that level. How did you ensure that music would really be honored in the play?
The film is not a musical. The Harder They Come has a brilliant soundtrack, but there are maybe two songs in the whole movie that actually come out of the characters’ mouths. All the other songs are underscoring. So one of my wonderful tasks, which I loved, was creating dramatic context for the songs. Because for a character to open their mouth and sing one of those great classics that we love, it has to make dramatic sense.
I also wrote a few songs for this show. The producer said, “Use any Jimmy Cliff song you want; we’ll get the rights to it. And any Jamaican classic that you think will fit.” So we also have the “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker. We have the Toots and the Maytals song “Sweet and Dandy.” But there were some moments where I was like, “There is no Jamaican classic or Jimmy Cliff song that’s going to work, and we need a song for this moment.” So I asked the producers, “Can I just write one?” And they said sure. So I went ahead and wrote “Hero Don’t Ever Die,” and then “Him,” which Elsa sings, and then “The Ballad of Ivan” later on to provide us with those dramatic moments that the show really needs. That was a lot of fun.
That is so cool. What was it like working with the actors, and were they super excited, I would assume, to do this kind of music? Was it different for them?
Oh, yeah. They’re really into the music. Most of them had heard the songs, because there’s just such great hits, and they were really excited to sing them and to do choreography to them and get the songs in their bodies. They were over the moon with the music and the story too. In the film, Elsa and Daisy, who is Ivan’s mom, are not very fleshed out. So the actors really appreciated that every character has a story arc that really strengthens the whole narrative.
Absolutely. Then they can really breathe life into them if they have that arc.
Exactly. A wonderful actor told me years ago how much she appreciated the way I craft character. She said a lot of people just create these iconic stereotypes, cardboard cutouts of characters. And you can’t play a cardboard cutout. So our Ivan, sure, he wants to make a record, wants to be a star, has a healthy ego, is vain, likes to get his picture taken, wants to hear his record on the radio, all of those things. And yet, he thinks about the way the world is set up. He has things to say about that. He falls in love with Elsa and is very loving toward her, even though they believe in different things at the end of the show.
Yeah, it all just comes back to what you were saying about how the play is about working through feelings. Nothing is easy for anyone in this play, and you’re watching the characters do that in real time.
You mentioned this earlier, but you are a longtime writer-in-residence at The Public. What it is about that theater that’s made you want to work with it for so long? Does it have to do with the stories it tells or the people you get to work with?
It allows me to be myself. At The Public Theater, I’ve been encouraged to do my thing. It’s funny, the other night, someone in the audience came up to me during intermission. They said we’ve seen almost all of your work, and this is like nothing you’ve ever done before. I say that about every single thing that I do. Every time I do something, it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. And The Public Theater is okay with that. They don’t need me to be a cookie-cutter writer. I don’t feel like I have to prove that I’m good at what I do.
Speaking of, outside of The Harder They Come, you have two other shows that are about to open at The Public. Tell me a little bit about those projects.
One of them, Sally & Tom, had its world premiere last fall at the Guthrie Theater. It’s about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and the people who know them. You’ve got to see it to believe it, because it’s really a fun, wild play, and it’s about history. It’s about now, it’s about then, it’s about reality. And it’s a joyous, really meta, theatrical, gorgeous evening in theater. We had a lot of fun making it in Minneapolis, and now it’s going to come to The Public within the next year.
The other production is Plays for the Plague Year. I wrote a play a day during lockdown, plus about 25 songs, and The Public was like, “Hey, why don’t we produce that? Why don’t you star in it?” So I’m onstage; we go into rehearsal next week. It’s two and a half hours of delicious, wild, wacky, funny, moving memories. Everyone can relate to it. Come to the theater. Help us digest. Let us help you digest that event.