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How actress Tamara Lawrance connected to her Jamaican roots through her new PBS series

Had Lawrance's character been born in a different time, the actress said, "she would have ruled the world. She was so confident. It really inspired me.”
Image: A scene from \"The Long Song.\"
Tamara Lawrance plays a teen girl forced to become an enslaved housemaid to plantation mistress Caroline Mortimer, played by Hayley Atwell in the new Masterpiece series "The Long Song."Heyday Television Limited

Actress Tamara Lawrance did not fully realize the emotional toll of playing an enslaved woman who survives the 1831 Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica in the new Masterpiece miniseries “The Long Song” until she had a chance conversation with a drama therapist about the grueling role.

“We met up for coffee and she just kind of asked me questions about things that I hadn't been able to talk about,” Lawrance told NBC BLK. “It made me realize the trauma I was still carrying.”

Based on the acclaimed 2010 novel of the same name by the British Jamaican novelist Andrea Levy, “The Long Song” tells the story of an enslaved teenage girl named July (Lawrance), who was taken from her mother as a small child to become a maid for Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell), the newly wedded owner of a prosperous sugarcane plantation. The three-part BBC miniseries aired on PBS and is streaming on PBS Masterpiece on Amazon Prime.

“One thing I enjoyed about July was that had she been born in a different time, she would have ruled the world. She was so confident. It really inspired me,” Lawrance said. At the same time, “she is a victim of intense trauma, and that is going to come out in ways that we can’t quite put our finger on.”

An additional layer to her portrayal of July is the fact that Lawrance is of Jamaican descent herself. Born in Northwest London to a Jamaican immigrant mother, Lawrance notes that her family did not talk much about life on the island or its history.

Known as the Christmas Rebellion or the Baptist War, the 1831 uprising involved approximately 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 enslaved people.Heyday Television Limited

Through her research for “The Long Song,” she learned that the Christmas Uprising, also known as the Baptist War, began on Christmas Day 1831, when the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe led a general strike throughout the island demanding greater freedoms and higher wages for Jamaica’s 300,000 enslaved workers. After British troops were sent in, the strike quickly evolved into a slave rebellion. Before it ended on Jan. 4, 1832, 14 white planters and 200 enslaved people had been killed, with 300 more being executed by the Jamaican government after the uprising was quelled. The Slavery Abolition Act would be passed by the British Parliament the following year.

“I'd heard of that particular Christmas uprising, but not in detail, so it was amazing to be able to go into the depths of research and get more context to Britain's relationship to Jamaica and to slavery,” she recalled, adding that that connection was often glossed over in schools in the United Kingdom.

That glossing over of the brutality of slavery in the Caribbean is also why many viewers may find the scenes on “The Last Song” depicting the everyday cruelty and pain of plantation life shocking or difficult to watch. Just before it aired in Britain, a reviewer for The Guardian called the series a “beautiful, moving, horrifying adaptation” of the novel, and Lawrance noted that she had heard from several viewers after its U.K. airing about the emotional turmoil it created in them.

“It's very nice when people come forward and say ‘we love the show,’ but when we get into the history and the legacy and how that time has affected Black and white people since then, that's an important conversation to have,” she said. “Just to recognize the parallels that still exist today.”

Born to an enslaved mother and white overseer father, July, played by Tamara Lawrance, right, was taken from her mother Kitty, played by Sharon Duncan Brewster, to be trained to be a ladies' maid.Heyday Television Limited

Lawrance said she was also grateful that she had the chance to discuss July with her creator before Levy died from breast cancer in 2019 at 62. Lawrance had dinner with the novelist shortly after she was cast in the role and they maintained an email correspondence until shortly before Levy’s death.

“Andrea wrote a character that I would feel proud to be descended from,” Lawrance said. “To have somebody that’s got so much, that much vim despite everything that's happening around them gives humanity to her and all of the characters.”

“The Long Song” is also notable for being the first Masterpiece historical series to center on the Black experience. Lawrance said she wants both viewers and television and film producers to realize that the show’s popularity is a sign that many fans long for more diverse stories, particularly those about the Black experience. In addition to “The Long Song,” viewers have recently embraced both the Netflix series “Bridgerton” and the 2019 Masterpiece adaptation of “Sanditon,” the incomplete Jane Austen novel that featured a biracial character.

Set on a prosperous sugarcane plantation, life for both the enslaved workers and its owners change forever after the 1831 Christmas Rebellion.Heyday Television Limited

“The thing about period dramas is that there can be so much erasure of people of color being present at that time,” Lawrance said. “It's obvious that people of color would have been present in the period drama where there's enslaved people, but I think we also need to see more period dramas like a ‘Downton Abbey’ or a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that recognize that there were lot of people of color that were merchants and aristocrats and tradesmen that were operating in that time as well.”

As viewers discover more about the long history of Britain and the Caribbean and the labor of the enslaved people that funded British wealth, Lawrance also hopes “The Long Song” further shines a light on the contributions Jamaica in particular has given the world.

“There’s a real power in Jamaican people that I think sometimes goes beyond what we can even fully comprehend. They’ve influenced culture in every corner of the Earth. It’s incredible,” she said. “And a lot of that comes from that spirit of rebellion and of self-respect, and of knowing your own power.”

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