Artistes as mirrors

One of the best examples of what can be described as “cliché thinking” is to be found in the frequent diatribes against well-known artistes, particularly popular singers, who are lambasted these days for leading the public, more especially youth, into various negative social actions.  Whatever the egregious behaviour – abuse of women; illegal drug use; public vulgarity; disregard for authority; drunkenness – sooner or later, and usually sooner, the charge will be made: “It’s the popular music artistes who are influencing young people into all these things.” Dancehall and rap are two chief targets, but chutney is catching up.

In fact, of course, it’s the other way around.  The artistes are the ones being influenced; rather than prophesying that these behaviours will emerge, they are telling us that they are already here – they are seeing these shockers every day all around them, and singing about them. The singers are not warning about what will be; they are talking about what is. The chutney artist singing “rum ’til I die” is conveying a stance that is clearly prevalent in this country – the drinkers are proclaiming the idea in the rum shops. Similarly, the disposition for vulgarity and obscenity on music stages is being pushed by the obvious public choice for that. The dancehall or rap artist who shows degrading videos of women is showing us what exists on a wide scale in the society. These artistes are mirrors.

Certainly there are the exceptions – painters, for example, such as Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Dali, etc, with unique views personal to them – but the successful popular artist is almost always a mirror, reflecting the condition, holding up the image.  One can contend he/she is encouraging degradation, but to blame him/her for its creation is to be blind to reality.  The artist is actually showing us to us.

A striking example of this condition was at hand this past week at the Theatre Guild in a “Festival of One-Act Plays” staged by the Merundoi organization.  The plays are the result of a programme, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) through its Cultural Development Programme.  In the four-month exercise, approximately 65 young Guyanese went through intensive training in theatre disciplines (set design; stage management; make-up; etc) and in playwriting, with part of their remit being to present original plays, nine of which were seen last week at the Guild. Al Creighton, who played a major role in the training programme – he was widely praised by the drama students – referred to the process as the equivalent of a first-year drama school exposure, and enthusiasm was sky-high among the young performers and writers.

Critical examination of the plays as theatre will likely emerge in the press and elsewhere.

My case here, given my focus, is to deal with the topics chosen by the playwrights. In that context, to pull back from the entertainment and zero in on the subject matter is to see the concept of the artist-as-mirror vividly displayed

Of the six plays I saw, four had guns or knives used to kill or maim people.

In all of the plays, there was physical violence, or the threat of it.

In two of the plays there were scenes of rape or attempted rape, one of which included a young girl, and most of the theatre pieces depicted men wantonly taking advantage of women.

In scene after scene, while the scripts sometimes contained reasoned discussion, the predominant method of communication involved people screaming at each other and often resorting to threats or outright violence.

Two of the plays presented a picture of tyrannical police, and one character was shown whose creed was to solve problems by brute force. “Things don’t control me; I control things,” was his mantra.

Topics included corruption, death by poisoning, and severe abuse of women.

Understand that all the plays were the work of first-time writers, completely free to choose their topics, and the rundown above is not intended as a criticism.  To the contrary, these young people are to be commended for eschewing the safe subjects and bravely going after the blemishes and the wrongs in their society. In the time-worn tradition of art reflecting life these writers were doing what artists through the ages have done – they were showing us as we are.

The playwrights didn’t look to present doctored views, or to pander to any group.  They went after the nitty gritty of life here, using the language and the behaviour and the mores as they exist; as they know such things; as all who live here do.  The consequence of course, I can almost guarantee it, is that these plays will draw some criticism for being too raw and too graphic. To that point, two things: none of what those young people wrote about was invented or misrepresented.  All of it was real.  Graphic, yes, and discomfitting, but real. All the Guyanese sitting in those audiences know that.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we have remained silent, or even tried to ignore or even deny, these transgressions in our country, so it might be a good thing that we came to the TG expecting to be entertained and ended up being shocked.   Indeed, it could be that the jolt of seeing ourselves portrayed as we really are may be a catalyst that stirs us into action instead of continuing acceptance.

For the playwrights, a brief story: Many years ago, I wrote a comical song called It’s Traditional that outlined several ills in Caribbean society.

A Guyanese in Toronto who had originally chided me for “broadcastin’ all dese tings” later came to me and said, with a smile. “I understand wha’ you mean now; dem is tings we gotta fix.”

To all the ones who criticize your approach, tell them what the banna in Toronto told me:  “Sorry if you were offended, but these are things we have to fix.”

Mind you, that may be a result that the Merundoi and IDB folks had not envisioned going in, but that’s what you get when you hold up a mirror; you see what is actually there.

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