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Self-discovery essential for national development

Claude Robinson

Sunday, December 23, 2012    

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A glance at the entertainment pages of our national newspapers reveals a vibrant theatre scene in the nation's capital, even in these hard times.

To illustrate: Thursday Observer advertised Stages Productions offering of Scandal, Patrick Brown's Glass Slippaz at Centrestage, Oliver Samuels starring in his own production of Boy Blue; Andrea 'Delcita' Wright starring in Court House Drama. And the Little Theatre Movement, under the leadership of the indefatigable Barbara Gloudon, will open the annual pantomime on Boxing Day, as they have done since 1941.

Without commenting on the theatrical merits or artistic quality of these productions we note that they share an essential characteristic, that is, their 'Jamaicanness' in language, theme and cultural orientation. This basic truth applies generally to the theatre scene in recent decades; from serious drama to satire to comedy, there is a constant search for self-discovery.

It has not always been that way. I was reflecting on this while taking a second look at The Jamaican Theatre: Highlights of the Performing Arts in the Twentieth Century written by Wycliffe Bennett and Dr Hazel Bennett and published by University of the West Indies Press last year.

The book, a long labour of love and devotion by this remarkable couple, came out after the death of Wycliffe Bennett (1922-2009) as his widow stuck to the task and produced a volume that I believe is invaluable, not just for those interested in the history of the Jamaican theatre, but for our cultural history. It's a great Christmas gift.

The volume reflects Wycliffe's vast knowledge of all aspects of Jamaican theatre and theatre personalities for the second half of the 20th century. He was well-served by Dr Hazel Bennett's painstaking research which is also evident in her other works, including The Story of the Jamaican People, which she co-authored with the late Sir Philip Sherlock.

The book, the first of its kind, traces the development of the performing arts from the elite theatre scene of the 1920s to the highly successful current popular scene, sometimes referred to as 'roots' theatre.

In an insightful foreword, the late Professor Rex Nettleford noted that the Bennetts have produced "a panorama of performance from the imported companies and fledgling local elitist groups of the 1920s and 1930s, to the birth of the Little Theatre Movement during the war years from the small ambitious groups of the 1950s and the 1960s, to the thriving commercial 'roots theatre' of the current century".

The Bennetts argue that a recurring theme of our literary and cultural production, as theatre evolved from foreign to Jamaican, is that self-discovery is the "true path to development". It is a process of defining ourselves on our own terms rather than being forever dependent on how others define us.

The process of creolisation

Page after page we are reminded of the often uncomfortable relationship between the 'two Jamaicas' we have lived with from slavery, through colonialism to the current Independence period'.

They write, "As the country creolised both the European and African cultural elements, Jamaican folkways emerged -- Jonkonoo, ring games, Anansi stories, nine night, wakes, bruckins, etc."

But these forms were not quickly or easily assimilated due to resistance from various quarters. A "Euro-centred education discouraged black Jamaicans with social aspirations from indulging in African-oriented or folk-derived practices; and even when they knew them, some children were forbidden by their parents to sing Jamaican folk songs at home." (p.12)

However, some of these ideas and expressions found their way into scores of plays as writers and audiences defied the colonial illogic.

Their discussion of language is an interesting forerunner of the current debate about the role and future of Jamaican patois.

They recall that in the colonial period speech training was deliberately fashioned to imitate "good" English. "As in England, received pronunciation became more than a badge of social distinction; it was often regarded as the unmistakeable sign of a good education. 'Good' speech was one of the hallmarks of privilege." Not much has changed.

The book chronicles the contributions of scores of pioneers and includes biodata and profiles on every major figure in Jamaican theatre.

We meet EM Cupidon, Jamaica's first great comedian with a national reputation. "By sheer force of talent he penetrated the colour bar in the 1930s, thus helping to pave the way for inter-racial theatre." He was the first "coloured" person to perform at the Ward Theatre.

Then there was Elsie Benjamin Barsoe who shocked the establishment in 1945 when the People's Theatre presented WG Ogilvie's One Soja Man, not under the patronage of the colonial administration as was the custom. The cover of the programme boldly proclaimed that the play was "under the kind patronage of the Jamaican people".

The Ward Theatre, a central pillar of Jamaican theatre, opened December 12, 1912, courtesy of a donation to the city of Kingston, and is one of the largest indoor theatres. It has been the venue for numerous elaborate theatrical presentations.

The Bennetts reported that in 1911, when the Ward was under construction, the celebrated Irish playwright, essayist and philosopher George Bernard Shaw came to Jamaica to visit his socialist friend, the governor Sir Sydney Olivier.

The authors noted Shaw's remarks at a press conference at the time: As a city, Kingston needed three things, he said: "an indigenous theatre with touring companies kept firmly out of it (emphasis mine), a first-rate local orchestra, and excellent architecture" (p 26). This was just a few years after the 1907 earthquake and fire that destroyed Kingston. His remarks were intended to encourage the authorities to reconstruct a city worthy of a national capital.

Despite valiant efforts, we do not have a first-rate orchestra. But as pointed out earlier, we have a vibrant indigenous theatre across a wide genre of styles; and Kingston did achieve some architectural style.

We also know that much of downtown, like the Ward itself, has fallen victim to urban blight.

The creation of New Kingston as a rival city centre diverted focus from downtown Kingston; many businesses and key aspects of government administration have retreated from downtown amidst general urban decay not unconnected to the zones of political exclusion produced by garrison politics.

At a recent low-key ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ward, Barbara Gloudon, chairman of the Little Theatre Movement, called for the urgent renovation of the architectural and theatrical masterpiece, noting that it has long been a platform from which many persons could express themselves in developing the country's culture.

A wise man would not bet that the call would be heeded soon. A safer bet is that the creative and entrepreneurial spirit will always be there to help us discover who we are and how we can use that discovery to improve our condition in a world that owes us nothing.

A merry Christmas to you and your family.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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