The season for theatre

Arts on Sunday

This season is known for theatre in the Caribbean. Curiously, this theatre exists and has sprung from two different traditions: one that takes place on the formal (western) stage, and another belonging to the traditional theatre of the folk.  Each has evolved from different sources, but they have also been mixed, contributing in the end to a colourful exhibition of ‘seasonal’ theatre.  What is more, while there is a tradition of theatre at this time, most of it is not directly linked to the celebration of the season in content, theme or form.  The sources are historical.

This ‘Season’ is an integration of Christmas and the New Year.  It formally comes to an end on January 6, although this observation is hardly recognised in Guyana where Christmas is closed and forgotten long before that date.  But the Yuletide tradition came to the Caribbean from Europe and established itself here. Last Sunday night, for example, is Twelfth Night, the official end of “the twelve days of Christmas” when decorations are taken down and the season officially ends.

20130113alThese theatre traditions have their origins in observance of this Season from the colonial period, and all the different sources may be traced back to this.  It is so for the traditional performances as it is for those on the formal Western stage, even though much of what is happening now may not appear to have any discernible links.  In deeper examination, they all do.

Primary among those on the formal stage in mainstream theatre is the most prominent, most significant and most representative of them: the Jamaica Panto-mime. It is also the oldest of this form of seasonal theatre that has still survived, having started in 1942.  Since then it has been staged every year by The Little Theatre Movement (LTM), which has been Jamaica’s most established dramatic company, and going by the name ‘The LTM Jamaica Pantomime Musical.’  It grew to such proportions that a specialised Pantomime Company was eventually created.  This year’s production – Schoolahs by Barbara Gloudon, opened on Boxing Day as is the custom, and will run for a season of several months.  It is expected to close some time in May, 2013.   This annual production is a tradition that brings together several important elements.

The pantomime descends from an old English dramatic practice usually performed at Christmas time.  Britain has ancient traditions of seasonal theatricals such as Mumming and the pantomime.  Pantomimes usually take a folk tale, a fairy tale or some well-known traditional story or drama and commit it to the stage with a number of peculiar characteristics and stock characters, to be performed in the community at Christmas.
There are traditional characters such as the male and female romantic leads, the villain of the piece, and the Dame, who is a comic slapstick character.  The male lead is normally performed by a female, and the Dame by a male.  It is a comedy with a happy ending with the villain conquered and reformed.  Many familiar and topical references are usually written into the script.

This was brought to Jamaica by resident amateurs in colonial times and in 1942 the first attempt was made to introduce local elements into it.  As it evolved, there was a blend of English folk tales with the Jamaican until the trickster figure Anancy became a major character and pantomimes were made out of Anancy stories or Anancy was put into a European tale, for example, Anancy and Pandora.  Further evolution saw the total Jamaicanising of the form with brand new plots focusing on Jamaican history or local topical themes and containing strong satirical content.  One of Jamaica’s greatest theatrical personalities Ranny Williams soon created a standard character who was a combination of the villain and the trickster, and he was succeeded in that tradition by Oliver Samuels.

At present the Pantomime has a definite local form.  It is still a musical, with Jamaican music, distinct choreography and movement, and a satirical look at a local theme.  It retains as well, the comedy with a happy ending and conflicts satisfactorily resolved.  This is the second script with the title Schoolahs, after a similar work by Gloudon, (who has long become the exclusive script writer) performed several years ago. ‘Schoolahs‘ is the local slang for school children, and they are now being satirised for the second time because there are new social phenomena and the schoolahs of today represent a new generation with new patterns of behaviour.

The Jamaica Pantomime today has therefore appropriated and created old elements and newly evolved characteristics into the form.  A major development is the extended humour which involves a great deal of farce and slapstick since it is at base a popular form.  But it is also strong in such traditions as satire, topical references, comedy, romantic leads, the trickster/villain, choreography, songs and music.  It remains traditionally a pantomime.

This Season has now seen notable developments in the Jamaican theatre.  Quite outside of pantomime, it is now a popular season for the regular theatre productions, because several other plays also opened on Boxing Night in different parts of Kingston.  Several local companies launched new plays on that night to set in train what might well be a modern version of an old tradition.  The main gains are quite likely commercial; it is certainly a very interesting development in seasonal theatre that has no integral link with the Season, but which has rekindled another tradition.

New King-ston is the theatre capital of Jam-aica, being the area where most of the typically small theatre houses and venues are located.  This area resounded with the announcement of new plays on December 26, 2012.  All the regular companies and venues got into the act.  Oliver Samuels, whose career began in Pantomime, opened in Theatre Place on Haining Road with Boy Blue.  The highly successful Stages Theatre launched the typically sensational Crosses and Scandal.  The Pantry was the venue for Wine and Roses, while Glass Slippaz opened at Centre Stage.  Outside of New Kingston, leading playwright Basil Dawkins opened Dangerous Ambition on Boxing Night at The Little Little Theatre, and yet another production, Courthouse Drama, is at Olympia Hotel.

Of further interest are those still discernible ties with old seasonal tradition.  Glass Slippaz (glass slippers) at Centre Stage is a take-off from Cinderella, the fairy tale with the heroine who lost one of her shoes at the Prince’s ball.  This tale is a popular plot for many pantomimes, including one of those reproduced in Jamaica, and here we find one of the popular companies invoking it in a new popular play opening on the traditional night for pantomimes.  It must be pointed out that these plays are not confined to this period.  Having opened their curtains during the season, they will continue with long runs of several months through the year until they exhaust their audience.

To take it further, there is a new tradition in Jamaica in the sphere of dancehall in the shape of a major popular music show called Sting.  This is a large production of reggae and dancehall performances that is held on Boxing Night.  It was formerly located at the National Stadium, but has since shifted venue to Portsmore in St Catherine, and exhibits no links to any seasonal tradition.  But it is to be recalled that there used to be a vaudeville tradition very popular among the working class in the Caribbean.  Included in this were the Christmas Morning Concerts held in cinema houses on an annual basis before 1970.  It is reasonable to regard Sting as a renewal of that in the context of the changes in the popular culture and the resemblances to the old tradition that are so close they might be more than coincidental.

Also to be recalled is the very strong satirical tradition in Caribbean theatre and in particular on the stage.  Although this is no longer a surviving practice, it is worth mentioning the satirical year-end revues in different Caribbean countries in which humorous take-offs and lampoons were performed parodying local social and political topics.  Long after Jamaica’s Rahtid! and 8 O’Clock Jamaica Time ceased production, Barbados’ Laff It Off by Thom Cross and Marcia Burrowes continued.  The strongest survivor of these is Guyana’s Link Show by Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo which replaced the former Brink Show by Frank Pilgrim.

There are several other performances which are to be found in the traditional and folk theatre.  The most vibrant of them is the Jonkanoo of the Bahamas in which large amazing and spectacular costumed bands ‘rush’ through Bay Street in Nassau in two keenly contested competitions on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day making comments in satirical social and topical themes.  Jamaica’s Jonkunnu carries the same name but is a quite different masquerade performance at Christmas time.

Already mentioned is the British Mumming tradition which has had significant influence in the West Indies.  A good example of this is the Mummies of St Kitts-Nevis, also observed among settlers in the Dominican Republic, and the Speech Bands of Tobago.

It has already been said that in the main, these seasonal traditions have no thematic link to the Christmas or New Year season.  However, one of them in particular, is exceptional in its celebration of Christ’s nativity and his mother Mary.  This is the very vibrant Parang tradition of Trinidad and Tobago.  Songs are performed in Spanish, as it has Spanish and Latin Roman Catholic roots mixed with those from Africa and the Caribbean.  They sing of gifts and are part of a fairly elaborate sub-culture in the villages where they are/were known to develop.

Because of the combination of influences it is difficult to say which cultures were responsible for a remarkable feature in a number of performances in these traditions now extinct.  This is the theme of resurrection, forgiveness and good will to be found in some masquerade performances.  The St Lucian Papa Djab or Flavier the White Devil is based on a tale of conflicts, quarrels and killings among the sons of Flavier who then exercises forgiveness and healing in using his magic to bring them back to life.  The Jonkunnu had Doctor Plays in which rivals fight to the death and are recalled to life by a doctor in a performance known to be both tragic and comic in masquerades of the past.

These are known traditions with themes of rebirth and renewal derived from Africa and influenced by both European and local factors.  It is not to be facilely assumed that a particular influence came from a particular place.


About these comments

The comments section is intended to provide a forum for reasoned and reasonable debate on the newspaper's content and is an extension of the newspaper and what it has become well known for over its history: accuracy, balance and fairness. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments which contain attacks on other users, slander, coarse language and profanity, and gratuitous and incendiary references to race and ethnicity.