Among the most memorable acts in recent and contemporary Caribbean theatre is a theatrical innovation out of Guyana known as Dem Two. This group was more than a theatrical act, a performing team, it was one of the important contributions to the development of Caribbean theatre in the 1970s. It created a significant tradition which pushed forward the boundaries of performance and was very influential in what took place afterwards on the regional stage and even in the recording and cultural industries.
The two actors who teamed up to form Dem Two, Ken Corsbie and Marc Matthews, are cultural personalities each in his own right who went on later to make other contributions. But following the success of Dem Two they went on to expand the group into a team of six called All Ah We in which they were joined by four others, John Agard, Henry Moottoo, Eddie Hooper and Cammo Williams. They all have a history of their own remarkable talents and achievements.
Agard is a poet of some prominence in England where he has the distinction of having been named an official BBC Poet. He was selected to tour the UK, to speak and perform at schools and his work has been included somewhere on the curricula. He has been published by Bloodaxe, which is itself a mark of his recognition as a class poet who does something exciting with language. Two of his books, From the Devil’s Pulpit and Weblines won successive Guyana Prizes in 1998 and 2000. But of direct interest here is that, like Matthews, Agard’s forte is performance poetry which they took out of the Dem Two and All Ah We tradition to advance in solo careers in London.
Moottoo is reputed to be among the Caribbean’s most celebrated theatre designers, now based in the Cayman Islands. His present posting follows his work as a set designer and director at the Jamaica School of Drama where he made his name. Hooper was already one of Guyana’s foremost singers and songwriters when he joined the group and continued this career in the USA. Williams, who established an art studio, is still a steel pan performer of the finest quality.
The point is that All Ah We assembled a variety of talents, performance disciplines and literary interests which only underlined the importance of the original Dem Two contribution. The larger group was an excellent example of the expansion of the frontiers extended by Corsbie and Matthews whose performance concept created a tradition at the cutting edge of regional theatre. This had to do with performance poetry, the oral tradition, dramatic dialogue, storytelling, the uses of music and rhythms as well as a brand of stand-up comedy.
All of this and more will become very relevant if the significance of Ken Corsbie’s recent performance of This Mango Sweet produced by GEMS Theatre at the Theatre Guild Playhouse is to be appreciated. In this appearance Corsbie attempted to reassemble a portion of the repertoire and illustrations of the performance styles and modes of theatre that he had created decades ago with Marc Matthews. He also meant to recreate some of the dynamic theatre he has performed with the expanded team of Agard, Hooper, Moottoo and Williams. His production was a return to the past. More importantly, it was an attempt to recreate on stage, the essence of the famous Dem Two tradition. He enlisted current actors Ron Robinson, Francis Quamina Farrier, Russell Lancaster and Jennifer Thomas to reproduce some of the acts of All Ah We. For this he also benefited from the return of the only remaining member of that team resident in Guyana, the pannist Cammo Williams.
Corsbie’s performance was also important because, in addition to its attempt to re-stage the past, it was a sample of a current and new theatre in the Caribbean which is in part a beneficiary of the Dem Two heritage. The first act of the GEMS Theatre production was mainly “He One,” a solo performance featuring many cuts from an old repertoire; a type of performance that is the current development on the regular stand-up comedy routine. But at the same time it is a performance which draws on local traditions, not only in content and commentary, but in performance style. It is the form now adapted by Dave Martins in which he impressed in his pre-Carifesta concert.
The second aAct was the intended ‘All Ah We’ re-assemblage. Robinson, Farrier and Lancaster with appearances from Jennifer Thomas brought back a number of pieces from the old collection. These pieces represent the way in which Corsbie and Matthews made dramatic performance pieces out of varied selections of poems, prose extracts, songs including calypso, folktales, folklore and the oral traditions including the theme song ‘There is A Meeting Here Tonight.’ Like Martins, throughout the production, Corsbie relied on nostalgia for contact with an audience who would have come to the theatre to hear about past local customs, old familiar stories and jokes from a cultural landscape that has faded. All told, This Mango Sweet was only a shadow of the dynamic tradition it meant to reproduce, but a very important record.
Corsbie’s return to Theatre Guild had other resonances. It was where he began in theatre and from where he went on to be one of that institution’s outstanding contributions to Caribbean theatre as a whole. After Dem Two he had a productive career in Barbados before his move to the USA. He produced a book, Theatre in the Caribbean, part of a series by Hodder and Stoughton, which highlights improvisation and oral tradition out of which so much of regional theatre emerges. He has been, along with another Guyanese Michael Gilkes, one of Barbados’ leading directors to add to his exploits in film and video and his almost solo administration of TIE (The Caribbean’s Theatre Information Exchange).
His erstwhile partner Matthews had similar beginnings before moving first to St Lucia and then to the UK. The performance tradition out of Dem Two was the major influence upon his production of a recording titled Marc Up, an album of his dramatic recital of various pieces and performance poetry with rhythm and music. His career in Britain was built on that kind of presentation. Matthews also has the distinction of being the winner of the first Guyana Prize for Best First Book of Poetry with Guyana My Altar (1987). He also wrote A Season of Sometimes (1992).
The importance of Dem Two was remarked upon more than once by Eddie Kamau Brathwaite who was struck by their unique style and dramatic innovation, paying them tribute in a publication titled From Rodney to Dem Two. This is only further acknowledgement of their impact. There was a stage genre of comedy performance before them of which Bim and Bam followed by Lou and Rannie (Louise Bennett and Rannie Williams) were the most celebrated. They added to and enriched that with their brand of variety and dramatisation which cleared the ground for Paul Keens Douglas, Bello and Blacka among others.
Ken Corsbie in this most recent return to the Guild Playhouse would have found that it was very hard to follow himself. Even under normal circumstances it is never easy to get close to a reputation that is legendary, and in this case it was obvious Corsbie seemed not to have had time to rehearse with the new team that appeared on stage with him.
The great weight of history that lies behind his return for this appearance would have created difficulties in that regard. But it was an important production for the sake of that same history. The tradition and the legend are worth continuing. And while it is not a straightforward thing to recreate that act on stage unless Corsbie and Matthews regroup and refamiliarise themselves, there is a tradition in Caribbean theatre to which they have contributed. This tradition continues even if Dem Two will not. It has been very influential and manifests itself in different ways in performances that have drawn strength from that powerful heritage.