John Cayonne

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 Theatre Artist / First Executive Director for Caribana
Born: La Brea, Trinidad
Province: Ontario
Heritage: Trinidadian

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Johnny Cayonne was born in La Brea, Trinidad on February 10, 1934 to a Venezuelan father and a Trinidadian mother and was the fifth child of nine. When he was nine-years-old, his father passed away. Since his mother could not care for all of the children, some were sent to live in an orphanage run by French nuns in Port of Spain. Johnny was one of them.

When he was 21, he moved to New York for dental college but switched to theatre. He attended the Ornato Studio on Broadway, a studio training program with Sydney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The three would regularly go out on auditions together and compete for roles. In pursuit of his Broadway career, Johnny also had the opportunity to work with Beryl McBurnie, a famous Trinidadian choreographer in New York.

While in New York City, Johnny was known as “Jamaica Johnny” in Greenwich Village. Back then, everyone Black not from the USA was considered ‘Jamaican.’ He recorded the album ” I Rode An Angel” there and joined a calypso troupe with performer Pearl Primus.

After five years in New York, Johnny returned to Trinidad to continue his theatre career, playing lead roles in calypso plays such as Whistling Charlie. He even tried

Johnny invented his own theatrical form, Calypsopera.
to start a talent agency called the Caribbean Entertainment Association, but was unsuccessful due to lack of funding and opportunity for entertainers.

Johnny eventually moved to Montreal where he invented his own theatrical form, Calypsopera, described as a form “blending the staging and pageantry of western opera with traditional calypso rhythms.” Through the Trinidad and Tobago Association, the precursor to the current Black Theatre Workshop, Johnny produced two Calypsoperas: Calypso in the Flesh in 1966 at the Revue Theatre and Fact and Fancy, which received great reviews in national newspapers such as the Globe and Mail. For one of the shows, Johnny made a huge batwings costume inspired by the Carnival tradition as he was also a skilled artisan.

It was work like his Calypsopera and acquaintance with Charles Roach from back in Trinidad which resulted in the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) hiring Johnny in 1969 to become the first Executive Director and paid staff member of Caribana.

Johnny was responsible for pulling everything and everyone together for the festival and finding the entertainment. During the pre-Caribana season, Johnny would travel to different Caribbean islands to find entertainers and vendors for the events and festival pavilion, negotiating with the artists and artisans who came to Canada.

During the summer of 1969, he met a woman at Caribana named Wilma – through a mutual friend – who was seeing the parade for the first time at the invitation of a friend. Wilma and Johnny fell instantly in love and were married six months later.

Johnny’s vision in 1969 for Caribana was ahead of its time as he suggested that the group put the revenue they received from the festival into purchasing land for a building so that they could put the festival on year-round. If they had heeded his words then, Caribana would have been in a better position today.

The year 1970 was when Caribana came into full swing. It would eventually go on to become the most successful parade in North America bringing in over 400 million dollars per year into the city.

Johnny continued to be Executive Director for a few years and eventually became a Board member, rising to Chair for one year and Vice-Chair in another.

He became active in the arts again in Toronto in the 1970s, and developed the wood burning technique bois brûlée, making large woodcarvings by burning the wood. Johnny made pieces reflecting his nostalgia for Trinidad, carving footstools, clocks, planters and even skateboards. Johnny had his art displayed in Brampton, where he lived, and at Winters College at York University.

Johnny eventually shifted careers again and went into education, receiving a Bachelors of Education from the University of Toronto in 1978. He taught elementary, middle school and high school in York region and with Jose Fernandez was the co-founder and first editor of a race relations newsletter for the York Region Board of Education, an initiative which is still going to this day.

He went on to do a Masters in Anthropology at York University in 1983. In the mid-1980s, he developed health problems and in 1994, suffered a major stroke which left him partially paralyzed.

Johnny died of inoperable cancer on July 6, 1998 on his daughter, Juanita’s, 19th birthday, leaving behind his wife Wilma, son Antonio, daughters Ramona and Juanita, and daughter Yveanna from a previous marriage. His son, Antonio Cayonne follows in his footsteps and is an actor and theatre practitioner like his father. Johnny will be remembered as a Caribbean theatre trailblazer, inventor, and performer.

John “Johnny” Cayonne (1934-1998),

Photo Credit: Juanita Cayonne & John Cayonne | Additional files from Alicia Sealey 
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