Rachael-Lea Rickards grew up immersed in Bob Marley’s music.
Born in Jamaica the same year that The Wailers album, Burnin’, which included the song “I Shot the Sheriff”, that Marley wrote was released, Rickards was hooked on the artist’s pulsating reggae rhythms by the time she arrived in Canada in 1977 at age three.
“I remember being in my pajamas at night and dancing to his music while the big people were having their parties,” she said last Friday after being recognized with a Bob Marley Day Award at City Hall. “As a child, you loved the rhythm, but as you aged, you appreciated the messages. He was an artist that was way ahead of his time, both with his music, his thought process and his approach to holistic healing. I am so proud that I am part of a culture and people who have brought about such a leader in so many different ways.”
In her acceptance speech at the 24th annual awards ceremony held annually to coincide with Marley’s birthday on February 6, Rickards spoke about the challenges she faced in her quest to become an actor.
“I auditioned for every single role in high school,” she said. “All I wanted to be was Rizzo from Grease (an American musical romantic comedy). I was either told I was too light or too dark, too slim or fat. So I just didn’t get the roles. I left high school and tried to get an agent. I was told that I might want to lose a bit of weight, I might want to gain some weight or I might want to be lighter or darker, so I just said forget it. After that, I decided if people were not going to put me in their productions, I was going to create my own.”
Rickards produced and co-wrote with close friend Trey Anthony, I am Not a Dinner Mint: The Crap Women Swallow to Stay in a Relationship, which was mounted on four occasions to sold-out audiences. She was also in the original cast of Da Kink in My Hair, which made its full-length dramatic debut at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001, boasting the highest ticket sales that year.
An event planning co-ordinator for Trey Anthony Productions, Rickards was the founding artistic director of Broadway Bound Academy for the Performing Arts, Canada’s first triple threat performance academy for children of colour and the founding chief executive officer of Stages for Change Foundation, a non-profit platform dedicated to fostering artistic programs that help change the face of theatre and the performing arts.
Subjected to two epileptic seizures in her lifetime, Rickards joined Epilepsy Toronto a year ago as its director of public education and outreach to raise awareness among people living with the neurological disorders.
“It’s such an amazing organization that supports me and others who have epilepsy,” she said. “My main role is to reach out to members of visible minority communities and that includes the Jamaican community who don’t like to talk a lot about health matters. It’s important for me to be that face and educate our community.”
Rickards, who suffered seizures at age five and 37, is the sister of photographer, filmmaker, cyber artist and cutting-edge author, Peter Rickards, who succumbed to cancer last December 31 at age 45.
“Peter was an amazing artist and he was my partner in crime in the arts,” she said. “While we grew up to Marley’s music and admired him as an artist, Peter danced to the beat of his own drum. He was very passionate about his work and he had a warped sense of humour. He would often say something to trigger a reaction from others.”
Older sister, Suzanne Raja, is a motivational speaker based in Vancouver.
While dedicating most of her time recently to epilepsy outreach, Rickards’ creative juices are still flowing.
She plans to remount a musical, Bridge Over Joan, which she wrote.
“My father actually named the piece and it’s about a homeless Black woman who is under a bridge and her best friends are a lamp post and bridge,” said Rickards, who graduated from Sheridan College’s social worker service program. “She actually suffers from some form of mental health disorder, but you don’t see that in the play. I think it’s important for our community to have strong stories.”