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Film Clears Pathway Back to St. Croix For An Emigre

June 16, 2009 — To my most pleasant surprise, there you were on the screen, Bronco.
I attended the DC Caribbean FilmFest 2009, first on Monday night, June 8, where I saw a terrific documentary about an intact group of African descendants on the island of Carriacou, off Grenada. Following the film and discussion, I met the filmmaker, along with that night's moderator. I then commended and chatted with some of the folks who had put on the filmfest and met a couple of young Virgin Islands girls there (the Graham sisters), who said they were definitely going to the V.I. film the next day, even though one lived in Delaware and her sister in Baltimore.
I confessed that having been in Washington, D.C., about 15 years now, this was only one of a couple of Caribbean events I had gotten the chance to attend. But, I saw this Caribbean-American month, along with the filmfest, kind of, as my "coming out."
It seemed like all was conspiring on Tuesday to keep me away from the new U.S. Capitol Visitors Center where the Virgin Islands documentary "Sugar Pathways" was being shown. DC had strong thunderstorms and lots of rain for about the last month and a half now, and Tuesday evening was no exception.
I started to take a bus to the metro, planning to leave my car in the garage at work, to avoid the parking situation around the Capitol. Well, I left the building and the wind picked up, the thunder rolled, and it started drizzling. I waited for the bus for a few minutes and realized that the next one would not come until 5:30 p.m. and recalled that when I RSVPed by phone, the message said the event started at 5:30 p.m., not 6 p.m. like the flyers I had seen had indicated. I headed back to my building and got my car.
I found a parking spot off 1st, on D street, close to the Union Station side of the Capitol. I walked up the sidewalk, amazed that the sidewalks allowed me access, given that the streets themselves were all cordoned off by wide, heavy, rectangular cement blocks. I thought of how different things had been when I worked at the Library of Congress at the end of the 1990s.
I was scared, though, because it seemed like my small leopard-print umbrella was auditioning to be a conduit for lighting strikes. By the time I entered the South Orientation Theatre, having asked several Capitol Police exactly where was the theater, then taking the outside elevator down to the entrance of the visitor center (as I had no particular desire to slip and fall down the wet, slippery outdoors staircase), having security make me discard my small bottle of mouthwash before having my handbag scanned, and finally clearing the metal detector and a thorough inspection of my bag, which I had painstakingly cleared earlier in the day to meet the specifications on the Visitor Center website — folks were already seated comfortably in the dark. The screening of the documentary had already begun.
Boy, was my chest blown up as a Crucian. There were people I knew: Wayne James, Sen. James now, of the U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature, who was a year ahead of me at St. Joseph's Catholic high school, who crowned me the night I won as Miss Joseph. There were clips of "Bagoon," a famous local DJ — I hadn't heard that name in years.
Mention of Morales and Suarez supermarkets brought me back to being a child running errands for my grandmother, Miss Netta. Scenes of current students at St. Joseph High School, wearing the same plaid uniform I had worn.
Then on screen was Bronco, Dr. Olaf Hendricks. Good-looking as ever, disbursing sage advise! Look at my son's godfather, I thought — still brilliant, still vibrant, still showing much love for his St. Croix.
Following the screening, Donna Christensen, the V.I. delegate to Congress, acknowledged a few folks in the audience, including someone I probably run into once every couple of years or so, the affable Roland Roebuck, along with a young lady who was currently an intern in her office. After catching Roland and chatting a bit, I walked up to the tiny young lady and asked, "Are you Pat's daughter?"
She said she was. I said, "Well, when you speak to her, tell her Jo Ann Bennerson said hello." She said, "OK, I will."
Of course, in my mind that would have been like next Sunday, the way people spoke to their parents back in the day when I grew up; you know, once a week or so.
Everyone was in the front of the room, congratulating the filmmaker, Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz, on the excellent job she had done documenting what happened to the Puerto Rico island of Vieques and the migration, development and success of the "Crucian Ricans" on St. Croix.
I decided it was time to head out. While enlightened and re-energized by Merle Collins' film "Saracca and Nation: African Memory and Re-Creation In Grenada And Carriacou" the night before and Johanna's "Sugar Pathways," I felt physically exhausted by the recent batch of storms. I climbed the first set of stairs from the theatre, crossed the magnificent marble floor, and started climbing the second staircase up to the main inside level where I came in when someone started shouting, "Miss Jo Ann, Miss Jo Ann! Mommy wants to speak to you. My mother is on the phone screaming!"
Of course, I could not imagine the reserved Patricia Schrader screaming. But sure enough, there was Pat Schrader on the phone, exclaiming "Jo Ann Bennerson, is that you?"
"Oh my God!" she said. "Has it been 30 years?" I quickly demurred, asking '"How old is your daughter?"
"Twenty," she said. I replied, "Then it must be 21 years," remembering we were in the New York/New Jersey area the last time we made contact. We laughed, I told her how beautiful her daughter was and how much she looked like her.
Pat noted that she would be coming up to DC soon and hoped to see me. She couldn't wait to tell her brother, Richie (we had all been close in high school). I also informed her I had just seen her father, Mr. Schrader, in the documentary, and "He's a movie star." She laughed again and said, yes, he was quite the V.I. historian.
I gave my info to the lovely intern, her daughter. Talking to this bright-faced young lady, I hesitated in my previous declaration to leave. She thanked me and turned to walk back down to the theatre to fulfill that evening's duties.
I left the new Visitor Center at the Capitol without the fanfare associated with getting in but awash in Virgin Islands delight; with all sorts of images dancing merengue, salsa, quadrille and calypso in my head, with a voice-over of dialogues in Crucian dialect, and faces I missed, beautiful places and scenes about which I reminisced — all these Caribbean thoughts racing stormily and most urgently through my mind!
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