Caribbean drama

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The Caribbean region consists primarily of a chain of islands, 2,000 miles long, that frames the northern and eastern boundaries of the Caribbean Sea. The chain curves from Cuba, the largest and most westerly of the Greater Antilles, down to Trinidad and Tobago, the most southerly of the Lesser Antilles. Culturally, the region also includes the Bahamas and Bermuda to the north of Cuba, and certain coastal countries of Central and South America, in particular Belize, Guyana, French Guiana and Surinam.

These mainland countries are allied with the Caribbean islands through their shared history of colonization. Over the five centuries since Spain first colonized Jamaica and the other islands claimed by the Portugese explorer Christopher Columbus, the various Caribbean territories have changed hands from nation to nation repeatedly, some of them with remarkable frequency, through settlement, conquest, barter or outright purchase. The last major exchange in the region before Britain began to grant independence to its West Indian colonies in the 1960s was in 1917, during the First World War, when the United States of America purchased a cluster of 40 Virgin Islands from Denmark.

One result of this multinational colonial history is that there are four major languages in use in the Caribbean today: English, Spanish, French and Dutch. Patois in various forms is also common in several islands, such as St Lucia, and Papiamento in some Dutch territories. Hindi is still in use, particularly for religious and cultural functions, and, to a lesser extent, some Chinese is spoken. Throughout the region the European languages have been modified over the centuries by successive superimpositions of one over another, as in Trinidad’s English over French over Spanish, for instance. The languages have been further modified by the language patterns, vocabulary and accents of immigrants from other parts of the world, most noticeably Africa. Following the early Caribbean colonists’ decimation of the original Amerindian inhabitants, Africa was for some 300 years the source of the region’s slave labour, and a majority of the Caribbean population today is black or of mixed race. The second largest ethnic group comprises the descendants of the indentured labourers from India, who were brought to the West Indies after the emancipation of the African slaves in the 1830s.

A prevailing concern of the twentieth-century writers responsible for developing today’s body of West Indian literature has been the search to establish a distinctive, acceptably authentic regional voice. This search is most noticeable in the broadness of the range of West Indian theatre. In addition to the conventional drama of social realism and the yard theatre, the range includes popular farce and roots theatre, musical folk theatre, pantomime, community theatre, Jamaica’s Gun Court theatre, political theatre, church theatre, children’s theatre, storytelling, the street theatre of Carnival and carnival theatre, calypso theatre, theatre of ritual, and the poetic theatre of St Lucia’s Derek Walcott. There is also a considerable body of dramatic work written for film, television and radio. Cuba, in particular, has a comparatively vibrant film industry.

In the latter half of the twentieth century progressively more Caribbean theatre companies turned from staging imported scripts to staging, and even at times collectively creating, indigenous works. At the same time, other companies continued the colonial tradition of staging productions of scripts from Europe, and in more recent times ventured into scripts from America, and also from Africa, India, China, South America, the Middle East and other parts of the world. Productions are often staged in makeshift performance spaces, as there are few buildings in the region specifically designed for theatre, the Reichhold Center for the Arts in St Thomas being a notable exception. For a variety of reasons, which include the geographical fragmentation of the Caribbean and the region’s cultural history, audiences for imported theatre and for all but the most popular forms of indigenous theatre are small. Performance runs are more often counted in days than in weeks, even when a production is taken on tour of one or more islands. Jamaica is the only English-speaking island able to sustain any commercial theatre. There is comparatively little support for theatre from the private sector, though a few companies help to underwrite the costs of arts festivals, schools’ drama festivals, and playwriting competitions. Caribbean governments tend to subsidize amateur folk theatre in preference to more challenging and less popular theatres. Even Carifesta, the sporadically staged Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts, which was originated in 1972 by the government of Guyana as an extraordinary showcase and meeting-ground for the region’s leading artists in all disciplines, has over time been reduced by political influence and financial constraints to little more than an unambitious folk festival.

Under these conditions, theatre producers usually struggle to raise essential funds to stage each production. Not surprisingly, most theatre practitioners earn their living in some other profession, with theatre as their second career. Even so, the abundance of talent in the Caribbean quite frequently generates theatre of the highest calibre. And there is today a small but growing body of full-time practitioners, including producers, directors, actors, designers and technicians, most of whom trained overseas in Britain or America. There is also a pioneering School of Drama in Jamaica which, under the direction of playwright Dennis Scott, has conducted important experiments in the creation of West Indian theatre, in particular the theatre of ritual.

The first coherent developments in West Indian theatre took place in the 1930s, in response to the black nationalist movement active throughout the colonies. Over the preceding 200 years, various original dramatic works had been published or performed within the Caribbean, but these were, virtually without exception, derivative of European theatre. Such theatre had been popular in the Englishspeaking islands since the seventeenth century, when Jamaica boasted one of the first theatres to be built in the region. Theatre companies from England would tour the West Indies on their way to America. Local amateurs would fill in as extras in these professional productions, and would stage their own productions using the latest scripts from London, or favourite classics. Few of the occasional original works set in the West Indies employed any vernacular dialogue, other than as the object of ridicule.

Until emancipation, this conventional European theatre was almost exclusively the province of the colonial masters. The descendants of the former slaves and other immigrants continued to dismiss theatre as an elitist pastime until well into the twentieth century. This widespread lack of appreciation for the potentialof theatre for the masses persisted partly because of inadequate schooling. Throughout the islands, it was to take a century or more after emancipation for comprehensive systems of national education to be organized. Until the emergence in the early twentieth century of writers of popular; farces, such as Jamaica’s Ranny Williams, British Guiana’s Sam Chase and Trinidad’s Arthur Roberts, and of stand-up comedy teams such as Jamaica’s Bim and Bam, and Abe and Cupes, all of whom wrote their own material, the only formally staged theatre to have a wide popular appeal was storytelling. This latter is still popular today, the most widely known exponents being Jamaica’s Louise Bennett-Coverly and Trinidad’s Paul Keens Douglas. In the late nineteenth century the most popular storytellers were the Jamaican Henry Garland Murray and his sons.

Over the same post-emancipation period, however, a different kind of popular theatre flourished throughout the Caribbean. This alternative form was the folk theatre that had been brought to the region by the immigrants from Africa, India and other countries and which, like the ‘nation language’ of each island, had gradually adapted to the mélange of West Indian life. Trinidad’s newly emancipated slaves had taken the carnival that had been a private diversion of the French Creoles and turned it into a public celebration of freedom infused with echoes of Africa’s Egungun masquerades, as well as the burlesques of their former colonial masters. Jamaica had its Jonkunnu and its Pocomania. St Lucia had its flower festivals of Lawoz and Lamagrit. Barbados, British Guiana, Dominica and other territories had their Cropover, Cumfa, Hosay, pappyshows, Phagwa, Ram Leela, Shango. Because they were not then performed on stage in a building, but in the streets and in fields and at hillside shrines and wherever large masses of people might gather together, these folk festivals and rituals were not considered to be theatre, until the twentieth-century playwrights began to draw on the old immigrant traditions as a resource for the creation of a new West Indian theatre. The traditions of the original Amerindian inhabitants of the region have been largely lost as a resource, but several late twentieth-century playwrights, such as Guyana’s Michael Gilkes and Trinidad’s Raoul Pantin, have explored the Amerindian experience.

Although the Caribbean region is highly fragmented, there are parallel trends in the development of theatre throughout the islands, just as there are parallels in the islands’ shared history of colonization, slavery, emancipation, war, emigration, independence and industrialization. Some of these trends are visible even in territories such as the three French overseas departments, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, which in 1946 opted not to seek independence, but to remain administratively dependent on the metropole. Only Haiti, with its isolated political history of eighteenth-century revolution and self-rule, dictatorship and extreme poverty, has a theatre that has evolved along rather different lines, resulting in today’s powerfully allegorical form in the work of writers such as Franck Etienne. The Haitian experience has, however, like the Amerindian experience, inspired several important works by playwrights around the Caribbean, such as Derek Walcott, Martinique’s Aimé Césaire and Trinidad’s C. L. R. James.

James was one of the pioneering West Indian playwrights of the 1930s, at the time of the black nationalist movement. Others included British Guiana’s Norman Cameron, Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey, Frank Hill and Una Marson, and Trinidad’s De Wilton Rogers. The nationalists’ principal objective was to gain the region’s independence from its various colonial powers. They found that before they could create a sense of national pride that would draw the people of each territory together, they first had to develop a sense of individual self-esteem, particularly among the black peasantry with its legacy of slavery. Literature, the arts and theatre were the tools with which the nationalists planned to educate and inspire the population. Even after independence had been achieved, a number of the region’s playwrights continued to write works imbued with messages of community uplift.

Playwrights such as Cameron, Garvey, James and Marson shared the disconcerting experience of discovering, as young black adults sojourning in England, that the ‘mother country’ exalted by their colonial education was prejudiced against their race. Cameron reacted by writing didactic plays that extolled the lives of African heroes of the past. Garvey wrote epic works about the panoramic struggles of black people generally. James explored the characters of the Haitian revolutionaries, why they succeeded and where they failed. Marson became one of the earliest Caribbean playwrights of social realism. She wrote about ordinary middle-class Caribbean life, and was the first to bring on stage the then socially unacceptable cult of pocomania.

Other playwrights, such as Jamaica’s Archie Lindo, and later the poet and novelist Roger Mais, followed the movement to feature West Indian life in their works. Several Caribbean novels, by writers such as Herbert G. De Lisser, were adapted for the stage. Louise Bennett was already gaining wider acceptance for the vernacular through her poems and storytelling. Dominica’s Mabel Caudeiron also worked tirelessly to promote folk traditions. But with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the momentum of the nationalist movement was temporarily slowed. The establishment of new American bases in the region during the latter years of the war, and the resultant influx of American servicemen, left an indelible mark on the life of the islands, still apparent today in West Indian theatre, carnival and calypso.

One West Indian theatre form which first appeared during the war is the Jamaican pantomime. Traditional English Christmas pantomimes, with songs and dances, the principal boy played by an actress, the Dame played by a comedian, and a large animal played by two actors linked together, had been staged in the island on occasion since the previous century. In 1941 Jamaica’s Little Theatre Movement, inaugurated that same year by Greta Bourke Fowler, staged the first of its annual pantomimes, using a British script that had been adapted to incorporate satirical commentary on local current events. Such satirical commentary became a hallmark of the Jamaican pantomime. Satirical commentary in a musical form of theatre had been earlier established in Trinidad with the initial experiments in calypso theatre, begun in 1933 with The Divorce Case by Raymond Quevedo, who performed as calypsonian Attila the Hun. In 1943 the LTM staged the first original Jamaican pantomime, Vera Bell’s Soliday and the Wicked Bird. In 1949 Louise Bennett and Noel Vaz collaborated on the second original script, and since 1954 a variety of collaborations by leading Jamaican playwrights has produced an original script for each year’s pantomime, with few revivals. Fifty years after its inception, the Jamaican pantomime has developed into a West Indian institution that bears little resemblance to its British source. Each production costs 2 million Jamaican dollars to mount, employs some 100 performers, and plays to a total audience of 70,000 over a three-month run.

In the decade immediately after the war, four phenomena affected the development of West Indian theatre. One was the resurgence of the nationalist movement, which influenced the course of several newly founded West Indian theatre companies, and led to the creation of the genre of yard plays. Another was the pan-Caribbean work of Errol Hill and Noel Vaz, for Jamaica’s Extra-Mural Department of what was then the University College of the West Indies (UCWI). A third was the emergence of the Walcott twins in St Lucia’s theatre. The fourth was the 1950s exodus of West Indians, playwrights and other artists among them, who emigrated to look for greater career opportunities in England and North America.

In spite of the work of the nationalists and individual artists, during the 1950s much of middle-class West Indian society, and most vocally schoolteachers, continued to resist any attempt to use the vernacular on stage. The script for the first of the yard plays, Douglas Archibald’s Junction Village, won an award for Trinidad’s best play of 1952, yet it was to be another two years before the playwright could persuade a theatre company to risk production of this vernacular comedy. It became the most successful play of its time, and Archibald went on to write another 14, yard plays and others. A West Indian yard play is in essence a naturalistic drama with the single set of a barrack-yard, where several households struggle for their day-to-day existence. The prototypical yard play is Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by another Trinidadian, Errol John. This play, which won Britain’s 1957 Observer playwriting competition, continues to be produced around the world, in English and numerous other languages and adaptations. Other popular yard plays, and variations on the yard form, have been written by Barbados’s Anthony Hinkson, Grenada’s Francis Urias Peters, Guyana’s Slade Hopkinson, Jamaica’s Samuel Hillary and Barry Reckord, and Trinidad’s Errol Hill, Freddie Kissoon and Eric Roach. In 1986 Trinidad’s Earl Lovelace staged the adaptation of his novel The Dragon Can’t Dance in a musical version of the yard form.

While the yard playwrights were developing the earliest regional form of West Indian theatre, Jamaica’s Extra-Mural Department of the UCWI was developing the region’s theatre from a more technical aspect. As the Department’s Drama Officer, despite the total absence of budget, Hill travelled the islands, lecturing, researching, conducting workshops and producing plays. He assisted in the establishment of several community and other theatres. He encouraged the collective creation of West Indian plays. He collected original scripts and raised funds to have the best of them published, so that they could be circulated more widely. Hill also wrote a number of plays, articles and books which illustrate the progress of his thinking on West Indian theatre. He developed a theory of a regional theatre inspired by the national folk festivals, and wrote his musical Man Better Man in support of this theory. In 1972 he published his thesis, Trinidad Carnival, Mandate for a National Theatre. Hill’s thesis won immediate recognition around the Caribbean. Playwrights who have worked in the genre of carnival theatre, in its widest application, include Dominica’s Alwin Bully, Jamaica’s Samuel Hillary, Sylvia Winter and the all-woman company Sistren, Montserrat’s Edgar White, Trinidad’s Ronald Amoroso, Felix Cross, Felix Edinborough, Rawle Gibbons, Anthony Hall, Ronald John, Earl Lovelace, Ralph Maraj and Mustapha Matura, and the Walcott twins.

Derek and Roderick Walcott, the latter of whom died in 2000, grew up without exposure to formal theatre, but Derek was already the author of several plays when, at the age of 20, he co-founded the St Lucia Arts Guild. Roderick ran the Guild for nearly twenty years, long after Derek had moved to Trinidad and founded what is still the Caribbean’s leading theatre company, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Both Derek and Roderick are multitalented in the arts. Both are painters, designers, directors; and both are influential playwrights in the Caribbean, but their writing styles are quite dissimilar. Roderick is best known for his folk musicals such as The Banjo Man, and for his popular comedy The Harrowing of Benjy. Derek, who gained international recognition when he won the 1992 Nobel Prize for his poetry, wrote his early plays, such as Henri Christophe, in blank verse. It was his ambition to create a heroic West Indian theatre that would be unique in its poetic rendering of the vernacular. His Dream on Monkey Mountain is generally considered to be his finest achievement in this respect. In later years Derek came to write in a more naturalistic style, as in his popular two-actor play Pantomime, but his plays and other scripts, some 40 in number, are never without a heightened sense of language.

Both the Walcotts eventually settled outside the Caribbean, Roderick in Canada, Derek in America, emulating the West Indian emigrants of the 1950s. It was that earlier emigration that was largely responsible for today’s flourishing black British theatre. Among the West Indian playwrights who have settled or sojourned in England, and who have developed careers there in stage, film or television, are Barbados’s Jimi Rand, Guyana’s Michael Abbensetts and Jan Carew, Jamaica’s Alfred Fagon, Evan Jones and Barry Reckord, Montserrat’s Edgar White, St Kitts’ Caryl Phillips, and Trinidad’s Felix Cross, Errol John, Mustapha Matura and Samuel Selvon. The pioneering work of these immigrant writers, and of other theatre practitioners, helped to open up opportunities for British productions of the work of other West Indian playwrights, such as Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace and Jamaica’s Trevor D. Rhone. Trevor Rhone co-founded Jamaica’s Barn Theatre in 1965, in the garage of a private home. He has become one of the Caribbean’s most successful writers, whose plays are repeatedly performed around the region to record runs. His comedies are written with a rare depth of character and insight into human frailty, and his most popular include exposés of the tourism industry (Smile Orange), the education system (School’s Out), racism (Old Story Time) and male chauvinism (Two Can Play). Rhone’s work is rooted in Jamaica, but his themes are for the most part universal, and he has proved that it is possible to write in a Caribbean vernacular which is true to the ear and at the same time readily comprehensible outside the region.

In addition to Rhone and those playwrights already cited above, many others contributed over the last decades of the twentieth century to the continuing development of different forms of West Indian theatre, the most influential including Antigua’s Dorbrene O’Marde, the Bahamas’ Winston Saunders, Barbados’s Glenville Lovell, the Caymans’ Frank McField, Dominica’s Daniel Caudiron, Grenada’s Wilfred Redhead, Guyana’s Francis Quamina Farrier, Frank Pilgrim and Sheik Sadeek, Jamaica’s Ginger Knight, Easton Lee and Louis Marriot, Montserrat’s David Edgecombe, St Lucia’s Stanley French and Kendel Hippolyte, Tobago’s Bernadette Allum, Trinidad’s Dwight Arthur, LENNOX BROWN, Zeno Constance, Neville Labastide, Ian MacDonald, Ralph Maraj, Victor Questel, Lennox Raphael and Efebo Wilkinson, and the Virgin Islands’ Rudolph Wallace. Perhaps largely for cultural reasons, the region has produced comparatively few women playwrights, and those mainly in Jamaica, such as Enid Chevannes, Pat Cumper, Barbara Gloudon, Carmen Tipling, Cicely Waite- Smith, Jeanne Wilson and Sylvia Winter. Others include Antigua’s Tulip Fleming, Guyana’s Paloma Mohamed, Trinidad’s Valerie Belgrave, Sonya Moze, Seeta Persad and Eintou Springer. Most of these playwrights are unknown outside the Caribbean. However, even those, such as Rhone, who enjoy international productions, for the most part find that, to be seen at their most effective, their plays require a genuine West Indian cast. The West Indian style of acting has an uncommon robustness and vigour. It is a style that, at its least skilled, can result in stereotyped performances, particularly in the more popular theatre forms. At its best, whatever the form and whatever the language, West Indian theatre is exuberant, intense, provocative and exceptionally powerful.

from Judy S. J. Stone, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).