November 2, 1913
March 30, 2000
Beryl Eugenia McBurnie, a pioneer of Trinidad and Tobago's folk dance scene, was born in Trinidad. A child with a natural aptitude for dance who converted her parents' backyard into a theater, McBurnie resented the British colonial school system that promoted "foreign" culture, as opposed to her indigenous heritage. Native mores and influences were deemed substandard at best, and were scorned at worst.
In the early 1940s, during a stint at New York's Columbia University studying cultural anthropology with Melville Herskovitz, McBurnie refined her dance techniques with Martha Graham, all the while continuing to build a name for herself in her native country. She collaborated with several ardent Pan-Caribbeanists there. Eric Williams, a scholar and the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and C. L. R. James, a noted Marxist intellectual, persuaded her to apply her talent to the cause of West Indian unity and independence. Local folklorists Carlton Comma and Andrew Carr saw in her career the artistic expression of the political and social upheavals that followed the nation's demand for self-determination, as well as the intellectual research ability that characterized her efforts to broaden the scope of Trinidad and Tobago's cultural life.
Encouraged to study Caribbean folk heritage and influences, McBurnie visited South America in the mid-1940s and it was in Cayenne that she discovered the model for the theater she subsequently established in Trinidad and Tobago. The 1948 opening of the Little Carib Theatre was a triumph. Paul Robeson, the American baritone and Pan-Africanist, attended, as did Eric Williams, who said that the Little Carib is, in the broadest sense a political event, in that it is West Indian and rooted in the West Indian people and environment. "I never felt as proud of the West Indies or as optimistic of their future as I did last night" (Williams, 1948).
At various times in the 1950 to 1952 period, McBurnie toured England, Europe, and North Africa herself, seeking cultural ties with the West Indies and the necessary funding for her brainchild, which never received the requisite governmental support. Yet her troupe did not lack acclaim—in Puerto Rico in August 1952, in Jamaica at the country's tercentenary celebrations in 1955, and in Canada at the 1958 Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The troupe later performed for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1966.
Beryl McBurnie single-handedly bucked the colonial artistic system. Through meticulous research, she rescued Trinidad and Tobago's rich and forgotten heritage, recalling its French, African, and Venezuelan roots in both music and dance, yet always portraying that which was common to her country. For her efforts, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1959, Trinidad and Tobago's Humming Bird Gold Medal in 1969, and her country's highest honor, The Trinity Cross, in 1989. Through her art, Beryl McBurnie raised the political consciousness of a people. A precursor of the freedom of spirit that crystallized in Trinidad and Tobago's independence from Britain in 1962, she gave meaning to the preservationist's mantra: if we fail to pay attention to the roadmarks of the past, the present begins to lose its points of reference.
Ahye, Molly. Cradle of Caribbean Dance. Petit Valley, Trinidad and Tobago: Heritage Cultures, 1983.
Anthony, Michael. Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
Anthony, Michael. "People of the Century," Part 1. Trinidad Express, sec. 2, pp. 20–21. April 12, 2000.
Williams, Eric. Letter to Beryl McBurnie marking the opening night of the Little Carib Theatre, November 26, 1948. Eric Williams Memorial Collection, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago.
erica williams connell (2005)