Caribbean Theater, Anglophone

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Caribbean Theater, Anglophone

To understand the nature of the development of Caribbean theater over the centuries, as well as the form of theater that is now evolving in the region, it is important to know something of the history of the Caribbean. The experience of colonization and the type of slavery that existed there have left an indelible mark on the creative impulses of the people. Theater in the Caribbean, therefore, must be seen as having various stages of development. These stages are defined by historical periods, beginning with the meeting of African and European cultures, then the period after Emancipation, followed by a more classical form of theater, and finally a period of ritualistic and popular expression.

The source of Caribbean drama is in the folklore, myth, and rituals of the people. There are two types of rituals: (1) the sacred rituals, which include a variety of social, spiritual, and religious actions performed privately by and for the participants who are integral to the ceremony; and (2) profane rituals, which are those that make everyday life meaningful, predictable, and comfortable. Spectators are allowed to watch these profane rituals, and they may even participate in them. Included in all these rituals are the religious practices of the Indians, the Chinese, and the other peoples who were brought to the Caribbean. Unlike the indentured laborers who were brought to the region with a promise of returning home, the Africans, who were chattel slaves, suffered a violent sense of dispossession after being prevented from returning to Africa. Loss, dispossession, alienation, and a lifetime of imposed poverty resulted in a search for a cultural identity, which is a major theme in the literature of the Caribbean.

In their early theatrical presentations, slaves took the opportunity to ridicule their oppressors, and to console themselves, by presenting the victorious efforts of small, cunning animals. They also sought relief in entertainment through drumming and dancing. This entertainment took place on days when they were free from work, such as Sundays, Christmas, and Easter, as well as on certain work-related holidays, such as the end of the sugarcane harvest. Many of the communal festivals of black people in the Caribbeansuch as Papa Diable or Papa Jab in Trinidad, La Rose and La Marguerite in Saint Lucia, Jonkunnu in Jamaica and the Bahamas, Crop-Over in Barbados, Masquerade in Guyana, and even the short skits performed during the renditions of calypsoshave their origin in these entertainments.

Freedom and voting rights gave the masses the opportunity to question what had been presented to them as theater, providing a chance to found a theater that expressed their own aspirations. It was obvious that this would require that they ignore the theatrical fare given to them by the plantocracy. The first National Hero of Jamaica, Marcus Garvey, was the first proponent of black pride in black culture, and between 1930 and 1932 he produced four plays with large casts. Unfortunately, these plays have been lost to posterity. In 1941, Greta and Henry Fowler founded the Little Theatre Movement and introduced the Pantomime, based on the traditional English Pantomime. The Jamaica National Pantomime remains faithful to the structure of the traditional English Pantomime, presenting the same type of traditional characters and a pervading theme of good overcoming evil. Louise Bennett, the grande dame of Jamaican theater, was the leading Pantomime figure for many years. She played alongside Ranny Williams, and these two actors remain unforgettable icons of the Jamaica Pantomime. The Little Theatre Movement still produces the National Pantomime, though the social commentary, the content, and artistic form are more definitively Caribbean than when it was introduced by the Fowlers. Also in the 1940s, the Yard Theater was founded in Barbados, as was the Theatre Guild in Guyana.

In the early 1950s, Errol Hill (19212003), a leading Trinidadian playwright, called for a national theater that truly represented the cultural attitudes, expressions, and aspirations of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Over the course of his life, he produced and directed over 120 plays and pageants in the West Indies, England, the United States, and Nigeria. He wrote eleven plays, of which Man Better Man is considered a Caribbean classic. The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, from Saint Lucia, made his appearance on the scene in the 1950s. A winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, Walcott sometimes writes plays in verse, and his work, though firmly aligned to the ancient classical drama of Europe, is unmistakably Caribbean in content. He founded The Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad.

The 1950s also saw the appearance of a number of playwrights who were committed to presenting a mirror of society. "Yard" plays, as they were called, examined the conflicts of life in low-income communities, the tenement yard, and rural areas. Some of the playwrights involved in this movement were Barry Reckord from Jamaica; Slade Hopkinson from Guyana; and Errol Hill, Eric Roach, and Douglas Archibald from Trinidad. The Yard Theatre in Jamaica was part of this movement, and the Trinidadian playwright Marina Omowale Maxwell was its chief exponent. Unfortunately, yard theater had a rather short life span.

One of the outstanding modern Caribbean playwrights is Errol John (19241988) of Trinidad. Two of his plays, The Tout and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, have become Caribbean classics. Other playwrights who wrote works that can be classified as social realism also came to the fore at this time. These writers dealt not only with the social issues affecting low-income communities, but with those important to a cross-section of Caribbean society. Among these playwrights are Basil Dawkins, Ginger Knight, Carmen Tipling, Pat Cumper, and Trevor Rhone from Jamaica; Stanley French from Saint Lucia; Ronald Amoroso from Trinidad; and Rudolph Wallace from St. Thomas. Of these playwrights, Trevor Rhone has received the widest international acclaim. His most famous work, written largely in the vernacular, is Old Story Time, which makes use of significant Caribbean folk forms. His other well-known works are Smile Orange, School's Out, Two Can Play, and the screenplay for the 1988 film Milk and Honey. He is also an actor, and his performance in his own play Bellas Gate Boy (2002) was a one-man tour de force.

Another playwright who is highly esteemed is Earl Lovelace (b. 1935) from Trinidad. He came into prominence first as a novelist. In both his novels and his plays he is deeply concerned about the human condition. Another prominent playwright is Dominican artist, actor, and director Alwin Bully. His most memorable plays are Streak, Folk Nativity, Pio-Pio, McB and The Ruler of Hiroona.

Under the aegis of the Little Theatre in Kingston, the Jamaica School of Drama was established in 1969, and a permanent home for the school was erected in 1976. This is the only theater school in the English-speaking Caribbean, and it has brought together theater practitioners from all over the region. It has, however, been plagued by a lack of funds from its inception. In 1979, Jean Small, a tutor at the school, devised a course titled "A Caribbean Laboratory," which explored Caribbean folk forms in order to arrive at a Caribbean theater aesthetic. The research done in this laboratory influenced much of the ritual theater that took place in that period. Dennis Scott, a poet, playwright, dancer, choreographer, and theater director, was the then director of the school.

One of the interesting outcomes of the work done at the Jamaica School of Drama was the formation in 1983 of Groundwork Theater, a company formed by graduates of the school. They performed in schools using the popular form of theater that marks this period of theater, particularly in Jamaica, in which the structure of the African ritual, the use of significant ritual objects, the function of ritual agents, and the use of sound and movement were all studied and applied to relevant everyday Caribbean human issues. Scott displayed his adeptness in using ritual as an act that binds human communities in his outstanding play An Echo in the Bone. His other major play is Dog.

Following in this mode of ritual theater was the Trinidadian playwright Rawle Gibbons. His first full-length play, which made use of ritual, was Shepherd, which opened at the Jamaica School of Drama in 1981. Gibbons also became the director of the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts on the Saint Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. In 1991 he staged his calypso musical Sing de Chorus, which won five national Cacique Awards. The show is a docudrama on the development of calypso and Trinidadian society. Other ritual playwrights are Marina Omowale Maxwell, whose Play Mas is based on Trinidad's Carnival, while her Hounsi Kanzo is based on a Haitian ritual of consciousness. Zeno Constance Obi, a secondary school teacher, writes mainly for his student actors, and his play The Ritual has become the play of choice for teenagers. A splinter group of the Theatre Guild in Guyana commissioned the multitalented Guyanese playwright Michael Gilkes to write a play. The result was Couvade, which was performed at the first Carifesta, held in Guyana in 1972. The uniqueness of this play is that it makes use of an Amerindian ritual, and that it deals with the subject of Caribbean integration. In 1979 Gilkes settled in Barbados as a member of staff of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. He became the founder and first artistic director of Stage One, the leading theatre company in Barbados.

Popular theater was a reaction to the middle-class proscenium-arch type of theater. There were two important factors that identified popular theater: (1) it was led by an academic with formal knowledge of theater; and (2) it utilized the culture and aesthetics of the working class. In Jamaica, Ralph Holness was the founder of a sub-genre of popular theater called "roots theater," which focused on the lives of the working-class populace and the inner city. These plays were performed in unconventional spaces, such as a cinema that was no longer used as such, a section of a bar, or a space in a restaurant close to a bar. The proximity to a bar seemed to be very important as an adjunct of the performance, and the intermission of the included light entertainment of singing and dancing. Roots theater placed emphasis on the use of nation language, such as the Creole languages of the region, and it was usually done in a humorous way. This theater of the masses spread all over the Caribbean.

In 1977 in Jamaica, under the Michael Manley government, an "Emergency Employment," or "Crash," program was introduced. A number of inner-city women found employment in this program as street sweepers. Under the same government, the Bureau of Women's Affairs was set up, and that office decided to put on a show to celebrate the Annual Workers' Day. The street sweepers were invited to participate in this show, and when asked what they would like to do, thirteen of them decided that they wanted to act in memory of plays they had done as children in Sunday school. As they had no theater experience, the Jamaica School of Drama was approached to assist, and a member of staff there, Honor Ford Smith, volunteered to work with them. As the women could not read or write, she developed a form of oral theater using Jamaican Creole, the medium of expression with which they were most confident. The group dubbed themselves the Sistren Theatre Collective, and they were the first to proudly use Jamaican Creole in theater. Their first performance, Downpression Get a Blow, lamented the abandonment of a move to improve the conditions of factory workers.

The early work of Sistren was mainly improvisational, and the content of their plays was based on their life experiences. Their second major production Bellywoman Bangarang, produced in 1978, was an award-winning play that established Sistren as the new grassroots voice for women in the 1970s. Sistren's work concentrated on the plight of women, as well as the universality of women's issues. They became internationally recognized, although their plays were performed in Jamaican Creole using symbols, colors, dance forms, music, and ritual that came directly from their culture. An oral history project on their personal lives, their hardships, and their courage was documented by Honor Ford Smith in the publication Lionheart Gal. Some of their other important plays are Bandool-oou Version, and Muffet Inna Alla Wi. Hertencer Lindsay directed QPH, a play on the lives of three well-known women living in a retirement home. In 1980, Jean Small directed Nana Yah which was based on the life of the Jamaican National Heroine, Nanny of the Maroons, and from then on Sistren started creating plays on subjects outside of their personal lives but relevant to the lives of all women.

During the turbulent period of the 1970s in Jamaica, this type of activist theater had its place and was very popular, but with the change of government in the 1980s the mood changed and the freedom of expression that was experienced under the Manley government disappeared. Sistren had by this time acquired a home base, and they had created an income-generating screen-printing business. Their cushion covers, bags, curtains, and wall hangings depicted themes from their work. Unfortunately, as the activist leaders of the group moved on to other jobs, and as members of Sistren themselves started to look for opportunities outside of Jamaica, the original group fell apart and the screen-printing work came to an end. Sistren now mainly conducts workshops in communities and schools, and only four of the original thirteen members are currently residing in Jamaica. A later production, directed by Jean Small, was Mirro Mirro, a play about women's sexuality and incest. In the 1990s, however, the audiences in Jamaica were searching for entertainments that offered relief from the stresses and strains of life, and serious discussions of women's issues were no longer appealing. The play, therefore, was not financially successful.

In Guyana in the 1990s, a few stalwarts, such as Al Creighton and Ron Robinson, kept theater activities going in spite of the inactivity of the Theatre Guild. Directors turned to the National Cultural Centre as the main theater space. Theater at the center gave rise to a large proletariat audience. The Link Show, a satirical commentary on current events in Guyana, is the only current annual production. A committee has been set up, however, with the support of the government, to refurbish the Theatre Guild.

In Jamaica, the commercial theater production company Jambiz International was formed in 1996. Their productions take place at the Centerstage Theatre, in Kingston, and they concentrate on humorous entertainment with actors such as Oliver Samuels, Glen Campbell, Christopher Daley, and Claudette Pious. Their main playwright is Patrick Brown. They also take their work to places such as London, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

Most theater practitioners in the Caribbean cannot afford to be engaged on a full-time basis in theater. In Jamaica, the prolific playwright Basil Dawkins is one of the few practitioners who works professionally in the theater. Most of his plays are directed by Buddy Pouyat, and he regularly takes his productions to England, the United States, and other parts of the Caribbean region. His work analyzes serious current social issues in an entertaining manner. His plays feature such well-known actors as Charles Hyatt, Karen Harriott, Volier Johnson, and Leonie Forbes. In Grenada, the Heritage Theatre Company offers light fare in the form of situational theatrical performances. Grenada also stages an annual Spice Festival, which consists of productions in which laughter is the main ingredient. The Cultural Division of the Antigua government promotes theater activity and exports their productions to neighboring islands. In 2001, theater practitioners in Jamaica came together to form the Jamaica Association of Dramatic Artists (JADA), with the determination to improve the quality of theater in the island. In 2002, JADA organized their first Script Festival as a first step to acquiring a stock of quality plays.

A genre of theater that is becoming increasingly important in the Caribbean is storytelling. Louise Bennett, through her poetry and storytelling written in Jamaican Creole, has helped give the Jamaican people a sense of self and a cultural identity. The Trinidadian storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas has similarly used Trinidadian Creole in his poems and stories, and he has helped to establish storytelling as a respectable form of theater. Storytelling is maintained in Saint Lucia by George "Fish" Alphonse, while Ricardo Keens-Douglas has been an important practitioner in Grenada. In Guyana, Desrey Foster, an academic in the Amerindian Research Unit of the University of Guyana, is the only established Amerindian storyteller in the region. There are also other young storytellers in the region, such as Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Amina Black-wood-Meeks, and AdZiko Simba. Storytelling has influenced Jean Small's one-woman performances, and her Black Woman's Tale has been performed internationally.

Twelve of the Caribbean islands came together in 1997 to form the Caribbean Regional Alliance (CARA) which is the regional representative body to the International Amateur Theatre Association (IATA). The first CARA Theater Festival was held in Trinidad, hosted by the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago. Since CARA was established, IATA has been forced to include Spanish as one of its working languages.

Since 2000, the University of the West Indies has been organizing an Inter-Campus Foreign Language Theatre Festival, which takes place each year at one of the three campuses of the UniversityMona Campus in Jamaica, Saint Augustine Campus in Trinidad, and Cave Hill Campus in Barbadosand only Anglophone students who are studying a foreign language are allowed to participate.

See also Bennett, Louise; Creole Languages of the Americas; Garvey, Marcus; Hill, Errol; Walcott, Derek


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jean small (2005)

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Caribbean Theater, Anglophone

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