Ranny Williams was born in Colon, Panama on 26 October 1912. His father Thomas Samuel Williams, a locomotive engineer, was born in Panama of Jamaican parents of St. Thomas. His mother Frances Emeline Williams was born in Manchester, Jamaica; her maternal grandmother was a Maroon of Accompong. Frances met Thomas while teaching West Indian children in the Canal Zone in Panama; she was also a popular singer and actress.
The family returned to Jamaica in 1918 when Ranny was 6 years old. He would live in Jamaica for the rest of his life and traveled to the U.S.A. and Britain to study and perform.
Encouraged by his mother, he had performed at concerts since age 7, in backyards, schoolrooms, church and lodge halls, garden parties and fairs island-wide, as an amateur in aid of charitable projects. Ranny’s mother, who was also choir mistress, had staged many community level concerts.
Referring to that period, Ranny said – “I grew up in what could be called a theatrical climate. I can see myself at 4 years old dressed in knickerbockers trousers and shantung (sic.) silk shirt and artist bow-tie standing on the little church hall stage in Colon saying my piece, or in flowing costumes playing my part in a Biblical play. You see, my mother was a theatre person herself involved in many church concerts and Sunday school activities in Panama and here in Jamaica”.[i]
As children, his siblings were also involved, his brother Roxis and sister, Luna. In an interview, Ranny recalled doing recitation while Luna sang and Roxis played the comical part.[ii] Ranny’s introduction to comedy was by accident, his brother Roxis could not keep his commitment at a scheduled concert and Ranny replaced him. His comedy career began then, “Gradually people began to invite me to functions such as lodge halls and churches”,[iii] He was an amateur comedian and actor by time he left school. Skits, sketches and comedies were written by him; he also dabbled in Shakespeare and other authors.
Ranny Williams was enrolled at the Chetolah Park elementary school and later became a student of Reverend Ernest Price, the headmaster at Calabar High School. Ranny’s father had hoped he would enter the seminary and become a minister. Reverend Price recommended that Ranny pursue a career in theatre having recognized his talent in acting. Ranny joined the Tutorial College, an independent high school after his studies in commercial practice subjects at Kingston Technical High School, gaining the London Chamber of Commerce Certificate in Accounting. He later studied journalism and regularly contributed to The Daily Gleaner, The Jamaica Standard, and other newspapers.
Marcus Garvey launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association UNIA in Jamaica in 1914, two years after the birth of Ranny Williams. When Ranny arrived in Jamaica at age 6, Garvey was at the height of his career in the United States having settled there in 1916. Garvey had re-launched the UNIA and written a constitution with the assistance of his senior officers as the UNIA attracted millions of followers that swelled to two million by 1919 and an estimated 4 million in 1920. Garvey launched the Famous newspaper, Negro World in 1918.
Ranny was 15 years old when Garvey was deported from the U.S. to Jamaica in 1927. Garvey established the headquarters of his global movement in Kingston and reinvigorated the UNIA in Jamaica.
In his 17th year, Ranny Williams and Garvey made contact, a rewarding connection for both. Ranny made strides developing his career alongside Garvey’s cultural program that benefitted from Ranny’s contribution. At the St. Andrew division of the UNIA in Edelweiss Park, (site was located on Slipe Road) where the movement’s administrative offices were situated, Garvey also established a cultural centre. The open air auditorium accommodated thousands.
Ranny became a professional performer in 1930. He was invited by Marcus Garvey to join the vaudeville group at Edelweiss Park and to organize entertainment for thousands of attendees at the park. Ranny’s productions included Blacks Gone Wild (1929), King Belshazzar (1930), Landing the Landlord (comedy 1930), Old Black Joe (1930), Perfectly Satisfied (farce 1930), Say it Singing (1930), She is Sheba (1930), and Ugly but Good Looking (sketch 1930). All these scripts have been lost to time.
With a comparatively small voice, his projection was superb and few others were heard as easily as he in the Ward or Little Theatres or in open air sans amplifiers. His breathing and breath control were unparalleled; he was audible even in a whisper. He mastered the art of voice placement, nuanced lines, and gave words their value and rhythm with impeccable timing. He could capture the spine of a character and was genius in finding the correct sub-text
A publication in the early 1930s spoke about William’s theatrical abilities as “Ran Williams, the latest natural original comedian in Jamaica has been given a chance to develop his skill at Edelweiss park … that he has been getting on by leaps and bounds goes without saying … and if he should obtain the heights of Cupidon or become a local Harry Lauder, [like Stanley Morand] he will have to thank Marcus Garvey for giving him the chance to make good.”
Ranny Williams got a chance to develop his potential when Lee Gordon, a great comedian of the day, introduced him to Professor Gerardo Leon, head of entertainment at Edelweiss Park. Leon encouraged Ranny and Lee to develop their sketches and topicalities and to create plays which were included in the weekly Saturday Night shows.
Ranny and Lee became known as ‘Amos and Andy’ and together they entered the 2nd LTM Pantomime, Babes in the Wood, at Ward Theatre on 26th December 1942.
In the wake of Stanley Morand, E.M. Cupidon, Gene Martinez, Tony Ableton and Vere Johns – Ranny and Lee acquired national popularity as entertainers. Lee added much comic relief in topicalities or “knockabout” sections that allowed for scene changes in the pantomime. In this genre they were followed by Louise Bennett, Lois Kelly Barrow, Charles Hyatt, Oliver Samuels and others.
Ranny Williams cemented his reputation as a skilled actor when he appeared as “Brer Anancy” when Louise Bennett and Noel Vaz created “Anancy and Busha Bluebeard” (1949). He played many aspects of the Anancy persona, as an Ashanti spider god and as a folk tale hero in Jamaica who performed great feats with cunning and dissimulation. Ranny played Anancy in 6 pantomimes: Bluebeard and BrerAnancy, Anancy and the magic Mirror, Anancy and Beeny Bud, Anancy and Dumbey, Rockstone Anancy and Moonshine Anancy. He played 29 pantomimes in all and three generations have enjoyed his live performances.
Williams’ breadth and knowledge of theatre is based on a rich grassroots experience nurtured in careful study, observation and in-depth reading. He penned two pantomimes, Quashie Lady (1958) and Jamaica Way (1959), adapted Robinson Crusoe for another and co-authored Queenie’s Daughter and Breda Buck.
Western classics by William Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, or Eugene O’Neil were also favourite roles he played with equal flair as he did Brer Anancy. In 1949 he appeared in O’Neil’s Emperor Jones as the character Lem. The play was staged at the Ward Theatre and the production was supported by the Surrey Players, Caribbean Thespians, Kingston Dramatic Club, the People’s Theatre, Eric Coverley Concerts and Ivy Baxter and her dancers. All these groups are today defunct.
Ranny performed a wide range of comedic roles in Shakespeare plays, directed by Paul Methuen at the Grand Theatre including – Host of the Garter Inn, The Merry Wives of Windsor, as Bottom the Weaver in Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1971.
He appeared as Malvolio in Twelfth Night directed by Orford St. John at the Little Theatre and as Trinculo in The Tempest directed by Errol Hill and Hugh Morrison for Jamaica Three Hundred in 1955 at St. Andrew High School for Girls. He played an Irishman Finian in the American musical, Finian’s Rainbow in 1962, directed by Lloyd Reckord. Finian’s Rainbow replaced the LTM pantomime that year.
On ZQI, Jamaica’s first radio station, he appeared on The Morgie and Putus Show in which he played all the characters at first and later with Alma Hylton who came in as Putus. Concurrently, he had a radio program, Hello, You Out There and later developed the Lou and Ranny Show for opening of JBC Radio in 1959. The Ranny Williams Show for JBC TV premiered in 1963.
His films included a High Wind in Jamaica, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, White Souls, Jamaica No Problem, Tropical Isles and The Marijuana Affair.
In the field of entertainment and drama he won several awards including The Jamaica Certificate and Badge of Honour, in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list (1968), The Institute of Jamaica Silver Musgrave Medal (1968), Commander of the Order of Distinction CD (1976) for outstanding service in entertainment and the IOJ Centenary Medal (1979). The Ranny Williams centre is a monument to his career.