Cell-Link Link Show 25 is perhaps the best that has ever been produced in the series since 1981. The show has always aimed to be funny and its promise of laughter and topicality helped to make it the most popular event in the Guyanese theatre calendar. That has always been a factor, but although it has wanted to be considered satirical throughout its 25 productions, it has not always achieved that. However, the strength achieved by the 2009 edition is partly owed to the very significant satirical content that the show has at last managed to incorporate into its several skits. The completeness of good direction, acting, variety, effective multi-media, pace and satire produced a show that has won acclaim, popularity and box office returns. the audiences will not let it go, forcing it to be repeatedly ‘held over by popular demand.’
The Cell-link Link is a direct descendant and adaptation of the earlier satirical series called The Brink. This was the Guyanese version of the annual satirical revues known across the Caribbean. These were shows that used laughter to carry out a review of the social and political events and issues of the year with an emphasis on social and political commentary through lampoon, take-off and pun. This form is one of the Caribbean adaptations of similar revues inherited from the European tradition.
The Brink was led and mainly written by Frank Pilgrim and is important to the history of Guyanese drama. It was a major development out of the achievements of the Theatre Guild in the 1960s. The Guild’s activities led to the serious emergence of local Guyanese theatre because of its production of significant local playwrights. Pilgrim, Sheik Sadeek and later Francis Quamina Farrier were the three earliest of note to emerge and contributed to the development of local Guyanese playwriting and original drama with local Guyanese content. The Brink Show series was produced by the Guild guided by Pilgrim right up to the late 1970s, when Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo left the Guild to form the Theatre Company in 1981. Their first production was the Link Show, a direct derivative of the Brink. This developed into its own tradition which has now experienced a pleasant renewal.
However, these forms of satire go back several centuries and may be traced to two different roots which eventually found merger in the Caribbean. The more conventional and well known beginning was in the Classical theatre of Greece around 500 bc when the main dramatists systematically wrote and performed plays at an annual festival. The two standard types were tragedies and comedies.
The comedies were satirical and well known for political commentary. They would criticise contemporary issues in the plays in those very early developments of satire in western drama. The best known Greek satirist is Aristophanes, author of the famous comedy The Frogs in which a chorus of frogs was among the main characters and the main commentators on the issues dramatised. Such a chorus was chosen because it helped the dramatist to fictionalise the situations, put them in the realm of the fable and distance Aristophanes from the very critical material presented.
His most hilarious and interesting play is the one in which he satirised war and the notoriously bellicose nature of Greek society. In the comedy Lysistrata, the women of Athens became quite fed up with the situation in which the men were always engaged in wars with other states and they devised a form of protest in order to put a stop to this practice. They staged a sex strike. They waged their own warfare against the men; it was no peace, no sex. Husbands were banished from beds and locked out of bedrooms until they were forced to repent their warlike ways and declare peace with the other states. All ends happily and the words that Aristophanes gives to the heroine Lysistrata at the end are interesting, when she invokes divine inspiration to ensure that this madness will never be repeated again. It is amusingly ambiguous; was she referring to the wars or the sex strike?
Through the centuries there were other ages in which satirical theatre was strong on the western stage. A good example would be the Neo-Classical age of the burlesque in the 18th century with such outstanding illustrations as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Ridicule and commentary in literature prospered in that period when satire was as lively in drama as it was in poetry. It was a major characteristic of the age which patterned itself after the Classical era to the point of imitation.
The continent of Africa was an entirely different setting, but through those very same centuries there existed a very powerful satirical tradition. This was a hallmark of rituals religious and secular, speech acts, song, dance, theatre and entertainment. West Africa still celebrates a wide range of forms among the Yoruba, Ijo (Ibo) and other nations, ranging from the Ewi Egungun, to the Udje.
The tradition seems so deeply ingrained in the African psyche that even after the middle passage it was a ready and ubiquitous social weapon of the enslaved in the western world (Eddie Kamau Brathwaite would argue that it is because of the middle passage). Nothing escaped their satirical attention, whether it was the members of the European community and their behaviour, the situation of enslavement or each other. Their propensity to ridicule people and situations was great, and still is among their descendants. Lampoon became a part of several theatrical acts that developed over the centuries, while satire has been one of their means of social control, used to rebuke the wayward or deviant and instruct the population.
Some of the cultural traditions in which satire and/or lampoon play(s) a role are many masques in the Trinidad carnival including Ol Mas on Jouvay morning, the calypso, the masquerade, nansi tori, the kwe kwe (queh-queh), the La Rose festival (lawoz) and the Trinidadian ‘picon’ culture. The tradition has been there in the styles of comedy in the vaudeville known across the Caribbean and practised by famous teams like Sam Chase and Jack Mello, Bim and Bam, Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams. It has been there in the way the working class audience responds to actors on stage.
In more recent times other forms of satire developed, some of which illustrate the way different types have merged, including mixtures of both the African and the European traditions. On the formal stage such mergers and evolutions created the Jamaica Pantomime which developed from the English pantomime growing to include satirical dramatisations of Jamaican society. They created the annual year-end revue, different versions of which flourished in Jamaica at one time or another. Eight O’ Clock Jamaica Time (always scheduled to start at 8.30) was one, Rhatid! was another.
It is difficult to find a show more steeped in the Barbadian character, mind-set, language, social idiosyncrasies and politics than the annual production called Laff It Off created by Thom Cross, an Englishman who built a career in the Jamaican theatre, then in Barbados, and directed/produced by Marcia Burrowes and Cecily Spencer-Cross. It lampoons local politics, sometimes holding the various sequences together by a continuing plot set in “the Nook and Crannie” Bar.
This is the kind of shape taken by the Brink in Guyana and now by the Link Show. But there were several years when the Link lost the plot. This happened in two ways; with satirical skills insufficiently developed, it often produced only jokes. With its eagerness to keep the attention of the popular audience it often descended into mere slapstick and whatever could evoke humour, including gossip and the going rumours off the streets. In the same vein, it often ended up appealing to political biases and entrenching prejudice rather than seeking to eradicate them through well aimed ridicule.
That era now seems over. Cell-Link Link Show 25 achieved what previous efforts did not quite reach, an all-round performance of effective laughter, high quality entertainment with sharp social commentary. It understood satire better than its predecessors and one marked feature of its success is the way good satirical content could be found in most of the skits even including some of the ‘quickies’/brief jokes.
This level of achievement may be illustrated in one of the skits titled Leaving, which used no words, but made very effective use of multi-media: video, music and acting. In general the actors seemed to have studied roles and polished their skills at take-off so as to lift the overall quality of the presentation. With this reawakening in the Link Show one can hope that that era of low farce and lesser achievement is over, but the satirical tradition remains.